PITTSBURGH -- To get outs, a pitcher must be comfortable. And in a lot of ways, that state of mind relies on a hurler's relationship with the man behind the plate.Either Rod Barajas or Michael McKenry has started each of the Pirates' 94 games this season. Both catchers have contributed offensively, but what's been more important is how each has handled the team's pitching. "It's usually one of the areas that helps you create separation within your division," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose team was a half-game behind Cincinnati in the National League Central entering play on Monday. "I've been on teams where we haven't had that, whether it's lack of experience, or just you don't have the catchers that are able to do that, or your pitching staff doesn't trust the catcher. "In Spring Training, that was one of the things we laid out -- the importance of what we're trying to build here." This season, the Pirates have benefited from consistency as it relates to the catcher position. That wasn't the case last year, when the team had eight players start behind the dish. Hurdle admitted how challenging that made things in 2011, but he said a lot of good came from it. More specifically, McKenry acquired loads of useful experience. Pair him with a veteran like Barajas, and you get two catchers who know what they're doing and how to bring out the best in a pitcher. "Our pitching staff now has gotten to the point where -- you know what? -- they do need to be aware of what's going on, but it's also kind of like when you're out on the highway and you put your car on cruise," Hurdle said. "You do know what speed you're going to go. You've got to hang onto the wheel for direction, but you know what speed you're going to go. "And they know what they're going to get back there, as far as direction, but they still need to be a little bit focused on what they're seeing as well."
If no deal materializes, Bucs pleased with roster
PITTSBURGH -- With a little more than a week remaining before next Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington confirmed an obvious perception: The 2012 Bucs' split personality has made it extremely challenging to identify the contending team's needs."At the end of two months, we would have absolutely felt we needed a bat after two months of historically bad offense," Huntington said while taking a brief break from "working the phones and staying in contact with our scouts." "At the end of four months, after leading baseball in offense for the last two ... it's been an interesting dynamic to work through." Remove "bat" from the must-get list ... and there is no list. "Our starting pitchers continue to do well," Huntington said. "Our bullpen continues to do very well. You can never have enough arms -- but we also have a lot of guys in Triple-A we feel good about. So it's nice that we don't have to go get someone specific; we can pick what we want to get, and if the acquisition cost is exorbitantly high, we can stay with what we have and continue to play winning baseball." The Pirates are would-be buyers. So are 21 other teams within a hot week of a playoff spot, although some of those appear to be straddling the fence. "More teams are starting to reach out with two-way logic," said Huntington, canvassing the market. "They're still looking to add, but the reality is setting in that they may need to sell." The Pirates approach this year's Deadline with a mind-set eerily similar to a year ago, when they did acquire veteran hitters Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick but passed on some "bigger" names available (i.e. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, whom Houston dealt). "We still feel good about the passes based on the asking price and on what they've turned into," Huntington said, candidly.
Hurdle: Bullpen has Pirates 'in a good place'
PITTSBURGH -- Behind so many of the Bucs' 54 wins this year has been the bullpen, a reliable unit that has contributed as much to the team's competitive place in the standings as anything else.Coming into Monday's series opener against the Cubs, the Pirates' relievers ranked second in the Major Leagues with a 2.58 ERA. They had allowed just 16.7 percent of inherited runners to score, the lowest rate in the Majors. As a whole, the bullpen had recorded 35 saves and posted an 85.4 save percentage, leading both leagues in both categories. Six Pirates pitchers have recorded saves this season. Those numbers might shock the casual fan, but nothing about the bullpen's success has been surreal to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "They've been on an incredible roll," Hurdle said on Monday. "Right now, we're in a very good place. These guys are making pitches. We're getting outs. That's what you're looking for." Hurdle's bullpen hasn't allowed a run in 13 2/3 innings spread across five games. The relievers have stranded each of their last 11 inherited baserunners.
The bullpen underwent some changes recently, as Juan Cruz was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday with right shoulder inflammation. In his place, the Pirates recalled righty Evan Meek from Triple-A Indianapolis, where the reliever posted a 2.21 ERA over 36 2/3 innings."I'm just going to try to bring what I was doing down there back up here and help the team out," said Meek, who's thrilled to be a part of what's happening in Pittsburgh. "When you look at the guys that are in the bullpen, it's a good 'pen." In talking about Pittsburgh's relievers, Meek mentioned everybody, including closer Joel Hanrahan and setup man Jason Grilli, both of whom have received plenty of recognition this year, and rightfully so. But the two guys Meek has been particularly impressed with are Jared Hughes and Tony Watson, specifically for the job they've done replacing starters in sticky situations. "That was my role two years ago; they're doing the same thing, and they're just doing a great job," Meek said. "And they've got awesome stuff. I mean, if you watch them pitch, they just throw strikes and they know what they're doing." He continued: "The 'pen is awesome. And it's great for the starters, because the starters know, 'Hey, if I can go five or six innings with the lead, there's a good chance we're going to win this game because of what we have down there.'"
Entering Monday, Pittsburgh had won three in a row against the Cubs and five of its last six. The Pirates will play Chicago six times in the next nine days. Since their win over the Cubs on May 25, the Bucs are 34-16, the best record in baseball over that stretch. Since then, the Cubs are 23-27. Andrew McCutchen has reached base safely in 34 straight games against the Cubs. In 43 career games vs. Chicago, McCutchen is batting .327 (49-for-150) with seven doubles, three triples, six homers, 26 RBIs and 28 runs. Neil Walker has played the Cubs 28 times and in that time has hit .343 (36-for-105) with 12 doubles, five home runs, 20 RBIs and 25 runs.
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.