SAN FRANCISCO -- For a week and a half, they were like golden earrings on a cow, brilliant accessories but really not necessary. On Sunday, Pirates relievers finally got their chance to shine meaningfully, and they did not disappoint.
Rookie Jared Hughes and Jason Grilli each hung up a zero, then Joel Hanrahan, manager Clint Hurdle's "Big Irishman," nailed down his first save of 2012 as the Pirates downed the Giants, 4-1.
Hanrahan made it more interesting than he would have liked, forced to twice face the potential tying run because he issued walks to Brandon Belt and Emmanuel Burriss. He escaped the 31-pitch inning by getting both Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan out on high, shallow flies.
"I was a little too amped up, and when I tried to slow myself down, it didn't really work," Hanrahan said. "I was fighting my fastball, but fortunately we got out of it. I just felt bad for my defenders, standing around out there."
It was quite natural for Hanrahan to feel out of sorts when he took the mound. This was his fourth appearance of the season, but his first chance to lock down a ninth-inning lead.
"That's what we've been looking for: a chance to give the ball to our closer," Hurdle said.
The win snapped a five-game losing streak by the team and a 12-start winless streak by Pittsburgh starting pitchers since Brad Lincoln beat the Reds last Sept. 24. The honors this time went to Kevin Correia.
Starting off another season the way he had begun the last one, Correia was the pitcher of efficiency. According to Hurdle's count, he elicited 10 of his 18 outs on three pitches or less. He needed a total of 91 for his six innings.
"He was throwing extremely downhill through five innings," said Hurdle, invoking the phrase for a pitcher being on top of his game. "It was just what we needed."
For the second straight game, the Bucs broke on top 2-0. After Garrett Jones led off the second by launching his first homer off Ryan Vogelsong, the Pirates weren't done. They loaded the bases on singles by Neil Walker and Clint Barmes and a walk of Michael McKenry before Alex Presley legged out a two-out infield single to double the score.
This 2-0 lead was in the safer hands of Correia, who doesn't seem interested in shedding the road-king reputation he picked up last season.
In six innings, Correia allowed three hits, none of them particularly solid, and a run, to become the first Pittsburgh starter this season to leave a game in position to win it.
"Correia did a good job of mixing it up," said Giants cleanup hitter Buster Posey. "He didn't repeat pitches too much and stayed away from the middle of the plate."
"We've been throwing the ball well enough to get a couple of other wins, but it was a big deal to get this one before we left town," Correia said.
Correia's chances of victory improved dramatically in the eighth, when the Pirates, for the first time all season, added on to a lead. And they did so with consecutive bunts, affirmation of Hurdle's design to aggressively little-ball foes into submission.
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval threw away Walker's bunt single for a throwing error that scored one run. Josh Harrison, pinch-hitting for Pedro Alvarez, beautifully laid down the second bunt for a squeeze sacrifice that plated another run to make it 4-1.
"We just put together a better package. A long ball, some small ball," Hurdle said.
Correia improved to 11-3 in his last 17 road appearances, reverting to his final one in 2010 with the San Diego Padres. His travel ERA in that stretch is 2.45.
"I hope it'll be a little better this time at home," said Correia, whose next start will come against the Cardinals in PNC Park where, in stark contrast, he was 2-8 with a 7.71 ERA during his first season with the Pirates.
Everything the Giants hit in the fifth found leather, and they still mined a run out of it. Leadoff man Belt pulled a drive that kissed off a leaping Jones' glove and went for a double, and he worked his way home on consecutive grounders to short by Brandon Crawford and Burriss.
Welcome to Pirates baseball '12, fourth inning: Alvarez rips a ball up the middle, Burriss smothers it with a dive to his right, throws him out, then Barmes takes Sandoval's breath away with a line drive between his eyes, but the third baseman gets his glove up in time to snare the drive.
For a change, however, those hard outs didn't haunt. The Bucs had a lead to turn over to their bullpen, and the bullpen treasured it.
"That was the big difference. We got a lead, and we battled to keep it," Hughes said. "It wasn't clean, but we pitched aggressively and made the pitches we needed."
The three relievers' efforts left the bullpen with a 1.73 ERA for 25 1/3 innings this season. Now that there is a save to go along with that, it is much more meaningful.
For the starting pitchers, it was a baseball version of the double-knockout. When Yamaico Navarro hit for Correia in the seventh, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy also made a move, replacing Vogelsong with Clay Hensley.
"This was a good win for us," Hurdle said, "geting out of town here, and on to Arizona."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.