PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle didn't expect scuffling closer Tony Watson to be available out of the bullpen Thursday night after blowing back-to-back save opportunities. They were far removed from a save situation in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, anyway.But when Watson is ready to pitch, will he return
PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle didn't expect scuffling closer Tony Watson to be available out of the bullpen Thursday night after blowing back-to-back save opportunities. They were far removed from a save situation in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, anyway.
But when Watson is ready to pitch, will he return to the ninth inning? Watson has been charged with four blown saves since recording his most recent save on May 21. He gave up two runs in the ninth on Tuesday and did the same Wednesday. Pittsburgh lost both games, devastating defeats for a team desperately trying to get back to .500.
Thursday's loss dropped them to eight games under the break-even point. Hurdle expected the Bucs would be without Watson, setup man Felipe Rivero and left-hander Wade LeBlanc in Thursday's series opener against the Marlins. That made right-hander Juan Nicasio the leading candidate to close if the situation presented itself at PNC Park. None of them had to pitch, giving the Bucs a fully rested back end of the bullpen heading into Friday's game.
Going forward, it's unclear how the Pirates plan to handle the ninth inning.
"There will be a conversation held, personally, as we continue to figure out and make our plans on what's best next for [Watson] and for the team," Hurdle said Thursday afternoon.
One of the Majors' best setup men before succeeding closer Mark Melancon last July, Watson has given up 10 earned runs on 13 hits and four homers in his past 10 appearances. The average velocity of his sinker has dropped from 94.2 mph in 2015 to 93.3 mph last season and 92.2 mph this year, according to Statcast™.
Hurdle said the Pirates have identified an issue in Watson's delivery.
"I believe he's going to push through it. We do believe that we have something factual, something that we can work with and work on," Hurdle said. "However, that role may not be indicative of just working on it any longer. We've got to look at how we best serve the player and the team."
Hurdle all but ruled out a closer-by-committee situation and acknowledged that simply switching Watson and Rivero may not be an effective solution. If Watson continues to struggle, it won't matter which inning he pitches.
"I've done this in the past. I've made the flip, and I never got to the closer for nine days," Hurdle said. "That's just the reality of it."
The next logical solution would be demoting Watson to lower-leverage work, as they've already done with former setup man Daniel Hudson. That would leave them with two options to close games: Rivero and Nicasio.
Rivero has been one of the Majors' best relievers this season, entering Thursday with a 0.58 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 31 innings over 31 appearances, tied for the most in the Majors. Nicasio has been excellent in a versatile bullpen role, posting a 1.35 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings over 28 appearances.
While trying to figure out the back end of their bullpen, the Pirates made a move to address their relief corps on Thursday, recalling right-hander Dovydas Neverauskas and optioning righty Johnny Barbato to Triple-A Indianapolis. Barbato put together a 4.84 ERA in 15 games for the Pirates.
Neverauskas, called up for the second time this season, has posted a 3.58 ERA in 21 appearances for Indianapolis. He made his Major League debut in April, becoming the first Lithuanian-born player to reach the Majors, and pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Thursday's loss.
"Happy to be here," Neverauskas said. "I know where to walk in, where to go, which door to walk into, where the locker room is. It's easier."
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.