Options for 8th inning explored

By John Mehno

For the Mirror

PITTSBURGH – It was almost automatic last year: If the Pirates had a lead in the late innings, Tony Watson pitched the eighth and Mark Melancon closed the ninth.

Melancon is still the closer, but Clint Hurdle said Wednesday he’s exploring other options for the eighth.

It’s not a matter of dissatisfaction with Watson. Rather it’s a case of finding the best way to use his options to protect a lead in the late innings.

“Is there a better way for us to cut it up?” Hurdle said.

He likened it to the brainstorming regarding the lineup composition that occurred during the offseason. That resulted in Andrew McCutchen moving to the second spot in the batting order this season.

All but 10 of Watson’s 77 appearances last season came in the eighth inning. In the first two games this season, Watson has worked the seventh and Neftali Feliz pitched in the eighth.

Hurdle indicated his choices will depend in part on who is batting for the opposing team in a specific inning.

The changes came out of Hurdle’s analysis of the situation, as well as conversations with general manager Neal Huntington and the players involved.

“I’m not ever averse to listening or trying to learn or get better,” Hurdle said.

Hurdle had to consider changes when Jared Hughes, one of his main set-up relievers, went on the disabled list in spring training with a strained lat muscle. The Pirates have also experienced some turnover in the bullpen, with Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo gone from last year’s group.

“We do have some different personnel, but we also have some stalwarts who are still in the same place,” Hurdle said. “It’s hard to argue that with Watson and Melancon pitching the eighth and ninth. However, with this bullpen configuration, is there just as good a way or a better way to do it? So that’s what we’re exploring.”

Watson said he’s fine with whatever role he’s given.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re just trying to get outs.”

Hurdle said he had no plans to use Watson earlier than the seventh inning.

It’s safe to say the Pirates have probably run a full statistical analysis. Their analytics department is a key component of the baseball operations, and Hurdle is on board with the numbers crunching.

Hurdle said there’s one part of the bullpen mix that’s not negotiable. Melancon will save games.

“The closer needs to be the closer,” he said. “I don’t plan on making any adjustments along those lines right now.”

According to Hurdle, he’ll use Watson, Arquimedes Caminero and Perez to get to Melancon.

“Their job is to get the ball to Melancon,” he said.

Injury update

Jung Ho Kang participated in a game at the team’s training base in Florida.

He played five innings in the field and batted four times. Kang has yet to make any left turns while running the bases.

His lower left leg was broken in a collision last August.

Hughes threw off the slope of the mound, but not from the rubber.

The Pirates said he would throw from the mound “in the near future.”

He’s gone

Infielder Jake Goebbert, who went to spring training with the Pirates, was claimed on waivers by Tampa Bay. The Rays sent him to Class AAA.

Goebbert was designated for assignment as part of the final roster cuts earlier this week.

Bundle up

The Pirates will travel to Cincinnati today for a weekend series. After that, they will play two games in Detroit.

They won’t get much of a break from the chilly temperatures they’ve experienced through the first three home games.

Daily highs are projected to be in the 40s in Cincinnati on Friday and Saturday with a better than even chance of rain on Friday.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.