PITTSBURGH -- After an inconsistent first half, the Pirates' bullpen has settled into place.
After a 3-2 walk-off win in extra innings over the Brewers, the Pirates own the Majors' second-best staff ERA in July, with their 2.71 mark trailing only the Dodgers' 2.17 ERA. Much of Pittsburgh's success on the mound is due to the bullpen, which leads all of baseball with a 1.75 ERA this month.
What's the difference between this group and the one that posted a 4.76 ERA in June?
"Maybe just a momentum-type thing," said A.J. Schugel, who pitched a scoreless inning Wednesday and has allowed one run in seven innings since he was recalled on July 7. "I think it's kind of contagious. Everyone's going out and doing their thing, and it's just kind of snowballing the right way."
Felipe Rivero has led the bullpen in dominant fashion since taking over as closer, with Juan Nicasio serving as a strong setup man. Daniel Hudson has turned it around, posting a 1.69 ERA since the end of May, and former closer Tony Watson owns a 2.08 ERA since he was demoted to setup work.
Three Pirates relievers -- Rivero, Hudson and Wade LeBlanc -- have not allowed an earned run in July. Nicasio and Jhan Marinez are the only active relievers to surrender more than one earned run this month, each having allowed two.
The Pirates experienced a similar run of relief pitching last season. In fact, it was exactly a year ago Wednesday that the entire Bucs bullpen -- from then-closer Mark Melancon to bullpen coach Euclides Rojas -- shaved their heads in an act of unity. This year's relief corps doesn't offer a shared look, only a seemingly contagious string of zeros on the scoreboard.
"Passing the baton is a term I like to use out there. They want to keep that thing moving. It's not that they need to do better than the guy before them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "They're in a good place. July has been a really good month for the entire group out there. They've all played a role. That contagious thing seems to work."
• Top prospect Austin Meadows (right hamstring strain) is in the "final stages of preparation for games," head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk said. Meadows hasn't played for Triple-A Indianapolis since June 21 due to the injury, but if all goes well, the 22-year-old outfielder should begin a rehab assignment at a lower Minor League level in the near future.
• Left-hander Taylor Hearn, the Pirates' No. 10 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, could miss the rest of the season due to a right oblique strain. Hearn, 22, last pitched Thursday for Class A Advanced Bradenton. Acquired along with Rivero in last year's Melancon trade, Hearn has a 4.12 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings this season.
• Triple-A right-hander Clay Holmes, Pittsburgh's No. 18 prospect, was removed from his last start due to shoulder fatigue but is tentatively scheduled to start Friday for Indianapolis.
Heart and Hustle
Adam Frazier was honored to be named the Pirates' 2017 Heart and Hustle Award winner on Tuesday. The MLB Players Alumni Association selected a preliminary winner from each team, with a league-wide award -- Josh Harrison won it in 2014 -- set to be announced later this year.
"Something I pride myself on is playing hard every day, leaving it all out on the field. Pretty cool to be recognized by former players," Frazier said. "Pretty big honor for them to recognize me for that. … They know what it takes to play the game every day. It means a lot to be seen in their eyes as a guy who gives it his all."