PITTSBURGH — The Pirates removed George Kontos from the eighth inning this week and when manager Clint Hurdle made that announcement, he was careful not to anoint a successor.
Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz, Richard Rodriguez and Edgar Santana were all named as possible solutions, and Hurdle said that the team would mix and match as necessary until they found the right mix.
But is sure is nice when ‘Plan A’ works out.
The first time the team was presented with a situation that required the back end of the bullpen on Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Chicago White Sox, Hurdle went with Santana for 1 1/3 innings, starting with a bases-loaded jam he inherited from Jameson Taillon. Feliz then followed up with a scoreless eighth inning before handing the ball to Felipe Vazquez.
That’s not to say that’s the way it’ll always work out, but it’s interesting to note that Hurdle made the same kind of claims a year ago when he removed Tony Watson from the closer’s role. Vasquez made all but one appearance as closer when he was available the rest of the way.
So if things keep working like they did on Wednesday, Feliz and Santana could be the guys for those roles.
“I liked the way both of them were able to step up today,” Hurdle said Wednesday.
Feliz was an obvious choice for the eighth inning, after all, he’s been lights out in the seventh inning. After a disastrous first outing, his ERA is down to 3.00, his WHIP is 1.27 and he’s allowed two runs over his last 18 innings.
What’s made Feliz’s run so impressive is that he’s been doing it without his best breaking ball. Feliz’s fastball usage is up to a career-high 75-percent, but that’s not been a Pirates-mandated change. He just hasn’t felt like he’s gotten it to a totally confident place yet this season.
“I just think I need to keep throwing it, trust it more and look for good counts that I can throw it for a strike and for a ball,” he said.
The one issue the Pirates have had with Feliz, and probably the thing that kept them from handing him the eighth inning outright, has been his pitch efficiency. But he was able to look better in that regard on Wednesday. He threw 14 pitches in his inning, but 11 of them were strikes.
“I think I need to just get ahead in the count and get feeling like the I’m going to get the first guy that I face out,” he said.
Feliz didn’t notice much of a difference in pitching the eighth versus the seventh.
“I’m not feeling like it’s much different,” he said. “It’s the same role. It’s just getting myself ready for getting people out when the call me.”
For Santana, the move to higher-leverage situations after pitching in lower-leverage situations much of the season has been something he’s been looking forward to. He got the chance for high leverage right away, as Hurdle called on him with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.
“One of the things I’ve been able to understand in this game is don’t put too much credit on the guys on base,” Santana said. “Focus on the hitter. Because, if the hitter doesn’t get a base hit, nobody is going to score. … When I came in, I just tried to get this guy out. I didn’t want the runs to score for my friend, Taillon.”
Santana said he feels a lot more comfortable using his two-seamer to get ground balls now than he has in the past, and his changeup, which he just began throwing regularly this season, has become a weapon — particularly against left-handers.
Lefties were hitting .152/.176/.303 against him coming into Wednesday, when Chicago sent four lefties to the plate in five batters and Santana retired them all.
“Now I have one more pitch, so they have one more thing in their mind,” he said. “In the scouting report, they say, ‘This guy throws a changeup, too,’ so they are thinking. The two-seam is really good right now, so every time I throw a two-seam, they get a ground ball.”
Santana moved through the minors very quickly after signing at 19 years old, and he never really had much trouble adjusting to a different level. But after tastes of the majors in 2017, he feels much more comfortable in the big leagues this season.
“Last year, I was thinking about, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t pitch good, they’re going to send me down to Triple-A,’” he said. “Now, I’m just realizing that this is my place. I’m going to be here for most of the year. I’m very comfortable right now. I know I can do the job.”
Time will tell if Santana and Feliz are able to stick in big roles in the back of the bullpen, but they both bring high velocity, swing-and-miss stuff and seemingly have the mindset for the job.