PITTSBURGH, Pa. — While the Pittsburgh Pirates offense has struggled for the majority of the season to score runs, the Bucco bullpen is a different story. The bullpen’s combined 2.47 ERA is ranked No. 3 in all of baseball — the best in the National League. Right-handers Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan, Jared Hughes, Brad Lincoln, Chris Resop, and the lone lefty Tony Watson, have whiffed 129 batters over 134.2 innings. Although they are currently the best bullpen in the N.L., they are without ego.
“I’ve been in places where you might get different type pitchers that want roles defined,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “I once had a situation where I called down for a pitcher to pitch in the sixth inning of a game and was informed that he wasn’t in the bullpen. After the game I asked him, [and] he told me he really didn’t get to the bullpen before such and such a time. That was an eye opener for me. We had to figure something out after that. That’s when I first became aware of some type of entitlement with some people.”
“There are some guys that are creatures of habit that you want to take care of and maintain their comfort zone and push them forward. But in this case, these guys, we’ve addressed and attacked this early last year. Get the ball to Joel. They kind of know how they’re going to be set up. If they’re used two days in a row, there’s a good chance they’ll be down…We’ve got guys with the exception of Cruz, service time, Grilli’s been around a long time, but the roles never really has been what it is now. They know they’re making a difference and they know they’re pitching meaningful innings. I think that’s the biggest part.”
Leading the ‘pen in ERA is righty Brad Lincoln. The 27-year-old started the season in the Triple-A rotation, but was recalled after Jeff Karstens was placed on the disabled list. Lincoln has made one spot start, where he allowed two runs on four hits over six frames but has been lights out in the bullpen. Lincoln’s allowed just one earned run in relief over 17.0 innings (0.53 ERA) with 21 whiffs to just six walks.
“We’re down there for any situation,” Lincoln said. “Our job is to get the ball to Joel, no matter how we do that. It’s kind of a shuffle down there. [Wednesday] night, I got up, then Resop got in the game. Some days it just works out that way. We’re down there on our toes all the time. When they call our name, we’re going to be ready and step in, pick up each other. Whatever situation occurs, that’s how it rolls.”
Out of the ‘pen, Lincoln may have just found his niche. The righty’s 0.53 ERA in relief is the fourth-best in the Majors and his 11.12 K/9 in relief ranks 25th out of 158 qualified relievers. Lincoln has a bulldog type of mentality. Just full throttle and attacks when in the mound in relief. Hurdle also wants to move him back into late innings and high leverage situations.
“I don’t have to be conservative out there and try to work deep into the ballgame,” Lincoln said. “It’s more go right at guys. Go more for strikeouts then being efficient. That’s the way I’ve kind of came accustomed to it. I’m liking it so far so we’ll see what happens. If they keep me in that role, if they want me in as the late inning guy, long relief, it’s something I’ll roll with.”
Veteran Juan Cruz signed a minor league deal with the club in the offseason, looking to break camp with the team out of spring. After posting a 2.61 ERA, Pittsburgh added Cruz to their 25-man roster. Cruz and Jason Grilli have shared time in the late innings, getting the ball to closer Joel Hanrahan. Cruz has allowed two runs over 16.2 innings (1.08 ERA) which included a 10.0 scoreless streak to start the season.
“I felt he could help us toward the back end,” Hurdle said. “One thing that can be said for men like Juan Cruz, he has a passion for the game which is significant. He plays the game. He doesn’t have to. He’s got money. He plays the game because he loves the competition.”
Rookie Jared Hughes and the lone left-hander Tony Watson, both young but with big arms, have also had significant roles out of the ‘pen. Both broke camp out of spring for the first time in their professional careers. Hughes leads all rookies in ERA (1.19) and leads the team in innings in relief (22.2). The righty also has made nine straight scoreless appearances (11.0) during the month of May. Watson, too, has been an asset leading the ‘pen in appearances. His 22 inherited runners rank second in Majors behind Tim Byrdak.
“They’re all pitching very well,” Hurdle said. “Hughes has run a nice streak out together. Tony’s done a very good job in the situation he’s been given. Everybody has really contributed out there. And without having to really wear anyone out doing it. That was the nice thing…I’m very proud of the way they’ve all just came together without ego and taking the opportunities they’re presented with and pitching their backsides off.”