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May 29, 2013

What You Need to Know

Up in Their Grilli

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
For 10 innings, game two of four between the Pirates and Tigers was scoreless. Rick Porcello, who in 128 major-league starts had never struck out more than eight batters, fanned 11. His counterpart, Jeanmar Gomez, who had not recorded a seventh-inning out in over a year, retired 21 Tigers on just 73 pitches to pare his ERA down to 2.30.

By the ninth inning, the game was in the hands of the bullpens. And even with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder threatening to walk the home team off with one swing, at that point, the visitors had the advantage.

Dominant relief work is a hallmark of many teams that emerge as Cinderella hopefuls and stay in the race throughout the summer. Their ability to shorten games is the secret formula that, whether fleeting or sustainable, fuels their unexpected success. Last year, the Athletics and Orioles reached the playoffs with recipes in which scoreless seventh, eighth, and ninth innings were a key ingredient. Oakland rode the trio of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour on its way to the American League West crown. Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, and Jim Johnson paved Baltimore’s path to the wild card.

This year, as the Pirates look to shed the bitterness of consecutive summertime swoons and deliver the franchise’s first winning season since 1992, manager Clint Hurdle appears to have at his disposal a three-headed monster of his own. Those heads are set-up men Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon, and closer Jason Grilli, all of whom contributed to the club’s 1-0 victory on Tuesday night.

In order for Neil Walker to seize the opportunity to give the Pirates the game’s only run, Wilson and Melancon first needed to provide it. The former took over for Gomez in the bottom of the eighth inning and posted two more zeros on the Comerica Park scoreboard, allowing only one hit and striking out two. The latter picked up where Wilson left off, working around a hit and a walk to set the stage for Walker’s solo shot in the top of the 11th. Moments later, Grilli struck out the side—a side that featured Torii Hunter, Cabrera, and Fielder—to even the home-and-home series at one game apiece.

The save was Grilli’s league-leading 21st, and he has yet to blow one while amassing that total in his first year working the ninth inning. Only Aroldis Chapman and Trevor Rosenthal have collected more strikeouts, among relievers, than Grilli’s 37. And the 36-year-old right-hander has permitted only 16 base runners in his 23 2/3 frames on the mound.

Melancon, coming off of a much-maligned 2012 season in Boston, in which a few extremely rotten apples spoiled an otherwise palatable bunch, has been almost equally dominant. The 28-year-old carried a 27-to-1 K:BB into Tuesday’s appearance, and though his walk total inched up to two, he continued to pound the zone, throwing 16 of his 22 pitches for strikes. Melancon has successfully passed the torch to Grilli 18 times, the highest holds tally in the league to date.

Finally, Wilson, the lone lefty in the threesome, has been a ground-ball machine to date, inducing wormburners on 55.2 percent of the balls put in play against him. He has issued 14 walks in 31 innings, but by whiffing 30 batters and serving up only one homer during that same span, he has mitigated the adverse effects of his erratic control. Wilson, a starter in the minors who was selected out of Fresno State in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, has faced far more righties than lefties this season, and—thanks in part to a sub-.200 BABIP—has held the lot to a sub-400 OPS.

The Pirates’ +36 run differential portends a 29-23 record through 52 games, a mark that, with their ledger currently at 32-20, they have outperformed by three wins. By record, Hurdle’s bunch is the third-best squad in the National League, felled only by the misfortune of playing in the same division as the two that presently rank above it.

The bullpen has been a vital piece of the puzzle that has helped the Pirates improve by six games from their 26-26 record at the 52-game mark of last year. But it’s easy to forget that, during their rise up the standings on the strength of a 34-19 June and July, the 2012 Bucs also benefited from stellar relief. Over his first 43 appearances, between Opening Day and August 6, a span over which the Pirates were 62-46, Grilli posted a 1.77 ERA. But the righty, who had blown only one lead to that point, imploded on August 7 and three more times in September, a month in which his ERA was a bloated 6.52 and the Pirates’ record a disastrous 7-21.

With Andrew McCutchen leading the charge, Starling Marte rounding into form, and the pitching staff, anchored by A.J. Burnett and the outstanding bullpen, sitting second in the majors in aggregate ERA, the Pirates are nearly a third of the way to finally snapping their two-decade-long losing stretch. But with the deeper Cardinals and Reds still above them in the standings, and the memories of last year’s collapse still fresh, the Bucs’ continued ability to shorten games and prevail in close, low-scoring decisions could determine just how far they will go.

Matchup of the Day
How do you avoid the boomstick of Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz?

The key, as some pitchers have learned, is to work the outside part of the plate while avoiding the inner third at all costs. One of the hurlers who have employed that strategy to great effect is Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon McCarthy, a former Ranger who saw plenty of Cruz during his stint with the Athletics.

Tonight, McCarthy will return to Arlington as a member of the Diamondbacks, and Cruz—whose OPS has dipped to 694 in May after a robust 880 showing in April—won’t be especially pleased to see him. The 32-year-old right fielder is just 1-for-17 lifetime versus McCarthy with no extra-base hits or walks. He has struck out only once in their past meetings, but that’s mainly because McCarthy has succeeded in eliciting weak contact in early counts. Twelve of the 17 head-to-head plate appearances between them have ended on or before the third pitch.

As is the case with most right-handed hitters, McCarthy has attacked Cruz with a heavy dose of cutters and sinkers, the majority of which have been aimed at the aforementioned soft spot on the outer third. The result: a whole lot of weak fly-ball contact, and only one line drive on 16 balls put in play. (The single, on August 12, 2011, came on a ground ball.)

McCarthy’s ability to keep the boom out of Cruz’s stick could prove critical tonight, because some of Ron Washington’s other big bats have had their way with him. Adrian Beltre is 13-for-31 (.419) with three home runs. Mitch Moreland, the owner of seven homers and a 980 OPS in May, is 6-for-15 with a couple of long balls. But Cruz has been a reliable out for the lanky 29-year-old, who has trimmed his ERA from 7.48 to 4.36 after a disastrous April and will try to maintain that downtrend for a sixth consecutive start (8:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Chris Davis would like a word with the skeptics who cast doubt on his ability to sustain the .348/.442/.728 triple-slash line he posted over the season’s first month. Over the seven days preceding Tuesday night’s contest, Davis paced the majors with a 1.541 OPS and added three home runs to his league-leading total of 16. The 27-year-old has been a terror to opposing righties, smacking them around to the tune of 27 extra-base hits in 115 at-bats, but he’ll face a formidable challenge from Jordan Zimmermann this evening. Zimmermann, whose 1.71 ERA ranks second among starters only to Clayton Kershaw, has permitted only 13 extra-base knocks and only three big flies in 73 2/3 innings over 10 starts. He’ll need to be extra careful with Davis, whom he has held hitless in three at-bats, while dueling Baltimore starter Chris Tillman (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Pirates are off to a 31-20 start. A.J. Burnett has a 2.57 ERA. So, the Pirates must be rolling over opponents behind the second-year ace, who also has notched 85 strikeouts in 70 innings, right? Not exactly.

    In fact, despite its overall success, Clint Hurdle’s team is just 4-7 behind Burnett and winless in the right-hander’s last four assignments. Burnett has worked exactly seven innings and limited opponents to no more than three earned runs in each of those trips to the mound, but he has been saddled with three defeats and a no-decision. Tonight, Burnett—who spent six years in the American League before the Yankees traded him to Pittsburgh—will take on a junior-circuit club for the second time this season. The Tigers are set to counter with Anibal Sanchez in game one of two at PNC Park (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • After weeks of scrambling for starting pitchers, from minor-league signee Billy Buckner to 2012 ninth-rounder Michael Roth, the Angels will be thrilled to get their ace, Jered Weaver, back on the mound this evening. Weaver has been out since April 8 with a fracture in his non-throwing elbow, but he threw a strong bullpen session over the weekend and will be activated without the benefit of a rehab assignment. The 30-year-old owns a 2.63 ERA in nine career starts versus the Angels’ crosstown rivals, and Carl Crawford is the only active Dodger who can boast a major-league home run off of him (10:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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