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Hughes eager to work back into Bucs' bullpen

Reliever taking lessons from tough 2013 after breakout rookie campaign

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Dirtbag Stomp appears to be on its way back. Jared Hughes reports that he's spent part of the offseason working on his entertaining -- albeit subconscious -- way of taking the mound.

"I've been working on it," Hughes said from his Texas home, levity in his voice. "That's also in fine shape."

"Also" is a terrific qualifier there, because the primary part of Hughes in shape is his right arm, the one that made his 2012 rookie act so engaging. Seeing 6-foot-7, 240 pounds of a pitcher climb the hill with a scowl and with the bill of his cap pulled low over his eyes will get your attention.

Hughes' pitching got a lot of attention that season, when the converted starter broke through as a key cog in a bullpen that had the Pirates contend into September. Among all National League rookie relievers, he had the lowest ERA (2.85) in the second-most appearances (66) and innings (75 2/3).

That resume was compelling enough to help convince the Bucs to deal away Joel Hanrahan. The designated replacement closer was Jason Grilli all along, but Hughes was expected to inherit Grilli's setup role. A reasonable expectation: In 2012, the eighth had been his most effective inning, with only two runs allowed in 22 outings.

Instead, the 2013 season became a personal bummer for the product of Long Beach State, whose ballplayers wear the slangy label Dirtbags. Educational, too: Hughes learned the importance of keeping his arm conditioned around the clock and around the calendar, and of not trying to pitch through developing pain.

"The Major Leagues are full of the best players, and when you're not on top of your game, they will get you," Hughes said.

The league got Hughes last season, ballooning his ERA to 4.78 and hitting him at a .291 clip. But they had limited chances to get him, shoulder tightness essentially keeping him out May through July.

The shoulder was an issue long before Hughes finally owned up to pitching coach Ray Searage and head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk.

"I probably pushed it a little too far," Hughes said, "and it's something I've definitely talked over with [manager Clint] Hurdle and the training staff. If I've got an injury, I need to be more honest, say something sooner, to make sure it never happens again.

"But I've also got to take better care of myself, got to do a better job of keeping the arm in shape."

Hughes said he is back to a healthy square one. He threw his third bullpen session of 2014 on Tuesday and said he feels "awesome -- I've worked hard, and I'm ready to go."

The Bucs are ready to get him back. Their 2013 bullpen is intact, and on any measure, it was one of the Majors' most unyielding. But standby arms like that of Hughes are what prompt analysts to fawn over the Pirates' depth in relievers.

Hughes' comeback needs to be both physical and competitive, and the two are likely related. Even before he had to be shut down with the shoulder problem last spring, Hughes raised red flags with the diminished effectiveness of his sinker, his main weapon. While he worked his way back in the Minors, Hurdle repeatedly cited the need "to see more consistency with the sinker. Consistency hasn't been what we've seen from him in the past."

Such appraisals -- not to mention the flawless performance of the incumbent relievers -- extended Hughes' Minor League stay. That turned into a boon, because he dominated the Triple-A competition, allowing one earned run in 23 innings (0.39 ERA).

"That did help my confidence a lot," Hughes said. "It was good to go down. When you're sent down, you're frustrated at first, and it's hard to stay positive. But I really tried to stay as positive as I could and to get better, to prove I belong in the Major Leagues."

That mission carried over into the offseason, as Hughes has worked on "getting that good sinker back. It's a pitch that has served me consistently. It's my bread and butter. That, and keeping the ball down and inside to left-handed batters, is what I need."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Jared Hughes