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Bucs turn to untouchable Melancon in 9th

Despite Locke's stellar first eight innings, Hurdle makes tough decision to go with closer

PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Locke was nearly finished with the best start of his career Saturday afternoon, and manager Clint Hurdle had a tough decision to make. Should he send out Locke for the ninth with a one-run lead or turn to closer Mark Melancon?

Several minutes after the game ended with high fives, handshakes, a win for Locke and a save for Melancon, Hurdle wasn't entirely sure he'd made the right decision. But the move worked out in the end, as Melancon continued his dominant stretch of ninth-inning performances and the Pirates beat the Indians, 1-0, at PNC Park.

"I don't know if tomorrow or a week from now I'll be able to tell you it was the right decision," Hurdle said. "I just know we won the game, and I wanted to get the ball in the hand of a guy that had been in that position before."

Locke's workload wasn't a concern. He'd only thrown 89 pitches, and he retired 19 straight before Jung Ho Kang pinch-hit for him to lead off the eighth.

But Locke has never pitched into the ninth inning as a starter. In fact, he's only appeared in the ninth once -- as a reliever, on Aug. 9, 2012.

Melancon, meanwhile, has unquestionably owned the ninth inning since mid-April. Although he permitted a walk and an infield single Saturday, the Bucs' closer converted his 24th straight save opportunity, giving him 26 on the year, tied for the Major League lead.

It was Melancon's 10th one-run save of the year, one more than he had all of last year. The All-Star candidate has given up one earned run in 33 appearances since April 23. Since May 15, he's allowed one run to score -- and it was unearned.

Locke "very well could have finished the job Saturday," Hurdle said. But he knew Melancon could.

"He has been so good, so consistent and so effective for us. You like it when he's on the mound," Hurdle said. "You look at his focus, his intent, his commitment to pitch and the execution, it's been as good as we've seen from him."

Locke wanted to experience the ninth inning for himself, but he understood the reasoning behind his exit.

"Of course I wanted to go back out," Locke said. "But I respect the decision always -- especially when it gives us a win at the end of the day."

More often than not this season, Melancon has given them exactly that.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Mark Melancon