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Pirates

Meek's command returns with confidence

| Friday, March 27, 2009

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates went into last season hoping to hide Evan Meek in the bullpen. They wanted to keep Meek, a Rule 5 pickup who had never been any higher than Double-A, out of high-pressure situations for as long as possible.

That plan lasted exactly one week.

Meek's first two relief outings were in blowout losses on the road. His third came in the Home Opener. In front of a sellout crowd. In the 12th inning with a tie score. Against the powerful Chicago Cubs.

Gulp.

Meek walked five batters -- two of them intentionally -- gave up a sacrifice fly and uncorked a wild pitch. He was tagged for two runs and got his only career decision in the 10-8 loss.

"That's not (the Pirates') fault," Meek said. "I let my nerves get the best of me. It was overwhelming. But having gone through that, there's no more surprises."

Learning curve
Evan Meek's stats this spring:
G IP ERA H R ER BB SO
11 10.1 3.48 7 4 4 6 9

This year, Meek is no longer a newbie. He has nine major league games -- and, yes, a glaring 6.92 ERA -- on his resume, along with five months of solid work in the Pirates' farm system.

"I'm more focused," Meek said. "I'm much more prepared. More at ease. There's not that pressure hanging over me."

Meek no longer has to make the roster as a Rule 5 guy. Instead, he's fully the Pirates' property -- a candidate for a bullpen job this year and a possible closer in the future.

"His approach is night-and-day from where it was a year ago," general manager Neal Huntington said. "A year ago, it seemed like every time he took the mound, he had the feeling that he had everything to lose. This year, he's taking the mound with the feeling that he has nothing to lose."

The Pirates claimed Meek in the 2007 Rule 5 draft. Selections must spend the entire year in the majors, or be offered back to their previous team, in this case the Tampa Bay Rays, for $25,000. Management loved his power arm, a quantity the organization lacked, but it was soon clear Meek was not mentally ready for the majors.

"He had the jitters," is how manager John Russell generously described it.

Actually, Meek was scared stiff. His knees were locked and his delivery was choppy and unathletic. The ball went here, there, everywhere.

Still, management was confident of Meek's long-term potential, so the Pirates and Rays agreed to a payment which allowed Meek to remain with the Pirates. Meek pitched in nine games for Double-A Altoona, then was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Meek had lost faith in his stuff, worrying that major-league hitters would abuse his fastball. In the minors, he rediscovered his confidence -- and his fastball command.

"I've always been a velocity guy," Meek said. "After I got sent down, I realized, 'This is the kind of pitcher I am. This is what I need to be consistent with doing.' Physically, I'm the same. I'm not holding back. It's, 'Here it is. Hit it' -- and it's working."

Meek put up a 2.40 ERA in 23 outings for Indy, with 34 strikeouts in 41 innings. He did just as well playing winter ball in Mexico, and it's carried over to spring training.

If Meek wins a bullpen job this year, he won't have to hide from tough situations.

"You can sense and see the confidence that he's showing now, and that's what's letting his arm play," Russell said.

In 11 outings, Meek has a 3.48 ERA. He's been shut down this week to allow some shoulder pain to subside. Wednesday, Russell said Meek had improved but was purposely vague about when Meek would return.

Meek earned three saves in his first five appearances this spring. Yet, those ninth-inning outings in March don't mean Meek has grabbed the closer's job away from Matt Capps.

Capps has mostly pitched in the early innings -- that's when the other teams' best hitters are still in the lineup. By the later innings, it's a casting call for the backups and minor leaguers.

"A few years down the road, yeah, I'd like to close," Meek said. "I don't think any reliever is happy being a middle guy. But I know my role now is basically a one-inning, middle guy."

Additional Information:

Today's game

Pirates vs. Toronto Blue Jays

7:05 p.m. · McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Fla.

Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7)

Probable starters: Pirates -- RHP Virgil Vasquez. Blue Jays -- RHP Roy Halladay

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