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Rivero, Nicasio to share Pirates' closer role

Watson out after 5th blown save, will pitch in lower-leverage situations
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have made a change in the ninth inning. Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio will share closer duties, manager Clint Hurdle announced Friday, while Tony Watson sorts through his slump in lower-leverage situations.

The decision was prompted by Watson's struggles. The veteran left-hander blew a pair of saves in Baltimore this week, his fourth and fifth blown saves of the season. In his last 10 appearances, Watson has given up 11 runs (10 earned) on 13 hits, including four homers.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have made a change in the ninth inning. Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio will share closer duties, manager Clint Hurdle announced Friday, while Tony Watson sorts through his slump in lower-leverage situations.

The decision was prompted by Watson's struggles. The veteran left-hander blew a pair of saves in Baltimore this week, his fourth and fifth blown saves of the season. In his last 10 appearances, Watson has given up 11 runs (10 earned) on 13 hits, including four homers.

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"Just not getting the job done, so we need to make a move," Watson said. "Whatever you've got to do to help the team win ballgames is the most important thing here. My mentality's not going to change just because the inning changes. I'm just going to go out there and figure this thing out and get back and hopefully get back to the ninth inning."

Believing he will benefit from mechanical tweaks and more regular work, Hurdle said the Pirates will turn to Watson when the game isn't on the line. His first lower-leverage work came, somewhat ironically, in the ninth inning of Friday night's 12-7 loss at PNC Park. Watson fired a clean inning on 11 pitches.

"He wanted the inning. He got the inning," Hurdle said. "I thought he was crisp."

The lefty's average sinker velocity has declined from 94.15 mph in 2015 to 92.23 this season, according to Statcast™. Watson said he won't be making any major mechanical overhauls, though, particularly not in the middle of the season.

"He's got work to do," Hurdle said, adding the Pirates would like to see Watson back in the ninth eventually. "The sooner we can get there, [the better]. But that means unplugging him now."

Rather than fill Watson's spot with one pitcher, the Pirates will keep their options open with Rivero and Nicasio. Both have proven to be more flexible than traditional one-inning setup men this season.

Video: PIT@BAL: Rivero K's Rickard swinging to end the 7th

"I think it makes a lot of common sense," Hurdle said. "It's the same role; the start of it is just pushed back an inning. Could one of them come in the seventh, get the last out and pitch the eighth? Yeah, and then the other guy will get the ninth. It's the role they've been doing. It's just, theoretically, going to be bumped back."

Rivero has three career saves, all of them with the Nationals, and Nicasio picked up one with the Dodgers in 2015. But their late-inning credentials are obvious.

By nearly any standard, Rivero has been one of the Majors' best arms this season. He entered Friday with a 0.58 ERA, fourth-lowest among qualified relievers. He has pitched in 31 games, tied for second most in the Majors. Acquired in the Mark Melancon trade last July, Rivero has 34 strikeouts and only six walks in 31 innings.

Nicasio, a former starter, has been nearly as effective. The right-hander owns a 1.35 ERA with 25 strikeouts and a 1.05 WHIP in 26 2/3 innings over 28 appearances. He was brought back this season to serve as a more versatile arm in front of the Pirates' planned late-inning trio: Rivero, Daniel Hudson and Watson. But with Hudson's early struggles and Watson's recent rut, Nicasio will now vacillate between setup man and closer.

Video: CHC@PIT: Bucs turn strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out DP

Hudson and lefty Wade LeBlanc should take on more prominent setup roles in front of Rivero and Nicasio. Hudson has posted a 1.74 ERA while holding opponents to a .152/.222/.273 slash line in 10 1/3 innings over his last 10 appearances, nearly all of them in lower-pressure situations. LeBlanc has been a steadying presence in the middle of the bullpen this season, posting a 3.34 ERA in 35 innings over 24 outings.

"We're going to use the bullpen to win games. There's not a closer," Hurdle said. "Depending on the lineup, depending on the game situation."

Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Out as Pittsburgh's closer given his recent woes (10.80 ERA with four blown saves in four tries since May 23), Watson can be dropped safely in most mixed leagues. Save-hungry owners across all formats can now target fellow Pirate Rivero, who has been one of baseball's most dominant relief arms this season (0.58 ERA, 0.74 WHIP). Meanwhile, Nicasio -- who will share ninth-inning duties with Rivero -- has a sterling 1.35 ERA of his own and should be added in 12-team formats.

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Juan Nicasio, Felipe Rivero, Tony Watson