It has been an interesting four days on the Pirates’ closer front.
On Tuesday night, Tony Watson blew a ninth-inning lead and the Pirates wound up losing to the Orioles at Baltimore.
On Wednesday night, the same scenario played out as Watson blew his fifth save in 15 opportunities, including his third in nine days.
On Thursday night, manager Clint Hurdle wouldn’t commit to Watson remaining as the closer. However, Hurdle gave a passionate speech about why it is important mentally for relief pitchers to have defined roles and how he had used or believed in a committee-type approach to the bullpen.
On Friday night, Hurdle announced that the bullpen would have a new order in which left-hander Felipo Rivero and right-hander Juan Nicasio would form a combo to handle the eighth and ninth innings while Watson and right-hander Daniel Hudson would pitch the sixth and seventh.
Perhaps the new closer can be called Felian Nicasero.
“We’re going to use the bullpen to win games,” Hurdle said. “There’s not a closer. It’ll depend on the lineup and depending on the game situation. Felipe could pitch the eighth. Felipe could be in the same role he’s been in. Nicasio is going to be in the same role he’s been in. One of them will pitch the ninth inning.”
Maybe the Pirates aren’t officially calling it bullpen-by-committee but that’s what it is. However, they can be forgiven for vacillating after their plan for the backend of the bullpen coming into the season fell apart.
Watson was being counted on to close after converting 15 of 18 save opportunities last season following the July 30 trade of Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals. Hudson was signed to a two-year, $11-million contract as a free agent over the winter to be the primary set-up man, and serve as closer insurance if Watson faltered.
Watson pitched a scoreless inning Friday night as the Pirates’ losing streak reached four with a 12-7 loss to the Miami Marlins at PNC Park. He had allowed multiple earned runs in five of his previous 10 appearances, raising his ERA to 4.44 from 1.92.
Hudson’s ERA is 5.33 ERA through 28 games, though he has pitched one scoreless inning in each of his last three games.
Meanwhile, Rivero has a 0.58 in 31 games and Nicasio has a 1.35 mark in 28 outings.
Watson met with Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage prior to Friday night’s game and was fine with their decision.
“I haven’t been doing my job and you can’t keep a someone in the closer’s role who isn’t closing out games,” Watson said. “The move had to be made.”
Watson was one of the premier set-up relievers in the major leagues from 2013-16, compiling a 2.22 ERA in 292 games during that four-game span while helping the Pirates make three postseason appearances in a row from 2013-15.
However, Watson has lost velocity on his fastball this year as it is averaging 92.6 mph. The Pirates feel some mechanical adjustments can help Watson.
“He has work to do and that’s what we talked about — how we best serve to get him back to being the best pitcher he can be and that he’s been,” Hurdle said.
It is difficult to make changes while pitching with the game on the line in the ninth inning. Thus, the Pirates are forced to make what amounts to a bullpen version of a double switch.
“I think our bullpen will (eventually) set up the way we wanted to set it up over the winter — to have Hudson and Tony in the back,” Hurdle said. “We’ve moved those guys forward and we’ve moved the other two guys back. We have a plan that we would like to put back in place.”
Time will tell if Watson and Hudson can pitch well enough to make that happen. The Pirates, though, had no choice but to try something different.