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Rivero eases concerns by earning two saves

Pirates' flame-throwing closer bounces back after rough Opening Day
MLB.com @adamdberry

DETROIT -- Is anyone still worried about Felipe Rivero?

After a rough spring and an ugly Opening Day outing, the Pirates' flame-throwing closer eased some concerns with a dominant ninth inning to pick up his first save and secure Pittsburgh's 1-0 win over the Tigers in the first half of Sunday's doubleheader at Comerica Park. Rivero finished the job in the nightcap, too, recording his second save of the day in Pittsburgh's 8-6 victory.

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DETROIT -- Is anyone still worried about Felipe Rivero?

After a rough spring and an ugly Opening Day outing, the Pirates' flame-throwing closer eased some concerns with a dominant ninth inning to pick up his first save and secure Pittsburgh's 1-0 win over the Tigers in the first half of Sunday's doubleheader at Comerica Park. Rivero finished the job in the nightcap, too, recording his second save of the day in Pittsburgh's 8-6 victory.

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"We're in a situation here where we want to use him to close games," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's what we told him. We had an opportunity to do it in the first game. Obviously we had an opportunity to come back and do it in the second game."

Mark Melancon was the last Pirates pitcher to save both ends of a doubleheader. Melancon did so on June 7, 2016, less than two months before the Bucs dealt him and acquired Rivero in return.

Rivero emerged as Pittsburgh's closer and one of the Majors' best late-inning arms last season. But in his first Spring Training as the closer, he allowed seven hits (including two home runs) and five walks in seven innings over eight appearances as he struggled to find his arm slot. He didn't look like himself Friday, either, as he allowed four runs and walked three without finishing the ninth inning.

General manager Neal Huntington acknowledged before Sunday's game that Rivero's delivery looked "out of sync" at times. But Huntington also offered a vote of confidence in his closer, who signed a long-term deal with Pittsburgh in January.

"Had a tough first outing, but what we saw late in Spring Training gives us reason to believe he's going to be on track here sooner than later," Huntington said.

"Sooner" turned out to be about 2 1/2 hours later. Rivero came on in the ninth inning to protect Pittsburgh's one-run lead against the heart of Detroit's lineup. Three up, three down, and Rivero earned his first save.

"I prefer to have the bad days at the beginning then pick up the team," Rivero said. "A one-run lead, so they really needed me."

What changed? Rivero said he focused on keeping it simple instead of trying too much or searching through video to pick up on what made him successful last season. He just tried to find catcher Francisco Cervelli's glove with his wicked arsenal of fastballs, changeups, sliders and curveballs.

It was an inauspicious start, however, as Rivero fell behind Miguel Cabrera, two balls and no strikes.

"Then it was nothing but good, nothing but hard-to-hit after that," Hurdle said.

Rivero pumped fastballs of 96 mph, 98 mph and 97 mph past Cabrera for the strikeout. And Cabrera doesn't swing and miss too often at three straight fastballs.

"Actually," Rivero said, "he did today."

Nicholas Castellanos went down swinging on a 98 mph fastball. Victor Martinez took a curveball for strike one then whiffed on consecutive changeups to end the game.

"That's the changeup that I was throwing last year. My curveball, everything was in place," Rivero said. "Once you see that, I'm back."

He wanted to be back on the mound, too, for the second half of Sunday's doubleheader. He told Hurdle as much even before meeting with reporters after Game 1. Sure enough, Rivero replaced Dovydas Neverauskas in the ninth after Detroit trimmed Pittsburgh's lead to three runs.

Cabrera laced a changeup to right field, driving in one of Rivero's inherited runners, but Rivero retired the next two Tigers to finish a two-save, five-strikeout day.

"Would have preferred not to, but once we got to that point, he's our guy," Hurdle said. "Looks like he's trending up."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Felipe Rivero