Pittsburgh Pirates

Bullpen is Pirates' biggest strength

BRADENTON — Spring was over, and the roster was set.

So, Matt Capps and John Grabow organized a meeting with the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen.

They talked about expectations. They talked about roles. They talked about being ready to take the ball every day — but not being afraid to speak up if you couldn’t.

“If you’re hurting that day, let somebody know,” Grabow said. “It’s not going to do us any good if you’re going out there and you can’t get a guy out.”

Given the results, another post-spring pow-wow shouldn’t be ruled out of the question.

The bullpen was the most consistent piece of Pittsburgh’s wobbly 2008 season — and one of baseball’s best. Thanks in part to guys such as Grabow and fellow set-up guy Tyler Yates, and Capps, the team’s closer, the Pirates were 50-2 last year when leading after seven innings. Only the New York Yankees (73-2) were better.

Credit the bullpen, as well, for Pittsburgh’s record in one-run games (22-21) and its 12 extra-innings wins, tying the Milwaukee Brewers for the most in baseball.

“We’ve got nothing but confidence in those guys,” catcher Ryan Doumit said. “For the last couple of years, they’ve done it. It’s one of our strengths of the team, and they’re still young, and they’re only going to get better.”

This time last season, the only reliever who knew his role was Capps. But as the season progressed, the more experienced Grabow and Yates, the latter of whom the Pirates picked up in a trade with the Atlanta Braves last March, began seeing more of the action.

And the Pirates began seeing good results.

The hard-throwing Yates, who threw a scoreless inning in the Pirates’ 6-4 win over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday at McKechnie Field, posted a 4.66 ERA in 72 games. Most importantly, he allowed only four of 28 inherited runners to score.

Grabow, who has been with the organization since the Pirates drafted him in 1997, established career highs in wins (six) and appearances (a staff-best 74), while whittling his ERA to a personal-low 2.84.

Those two, along with Damaso Marte, who was dealt to the Yankees at the trade deadline, took on more work when Capps was sidelined for six weeks with a shoulder injury.

“They did a phenomenal job for us,” manager John Russell said. “Obviously, the numbers show that we were pretty confident that when we got late in a game, those guys could hold the lead and get to Matt. And those guys picked up the slack for us when Matt was down for a while.”

Grabow is a rarity — a left-handed reliever who can get right-handed hitters out, as well. It’s a trait he attributes to his coming through the organization as a starter.

“You had to know how to throw a change-up, to throw a slider,” he said. “They’re not afraid to throw me out there and against some righties and try and get those guys out instead of having to use two pitchers in an inning.”

Yates, Grabow and Capps are set in their spots, and lefty Sean Burnett was solid after the Pirates brought him up from Triple-A Indianapolis in May. And with guys such as Craig Hansen and Donnie Veal competing for spots this spring, Pittsburgh’s bullpen may be the team’s greatest strength in 2009, as well.

Grabow, however, knows nothing is for certain.

“That was last year — things could change,” Grabow said. “You’ve just got to keep working the same way you did last year, don’t change anything and just have the mindset that you don’t have everything figured out. You’re still learning a lot, and hitters are going to make adjustments, so we’re going to have to make adjustments off them.”