Healthy Meek ready to return to old form
Reliever recovered from tendinitis that affected '11 season
PITTSBURGH -- Once you move beyond the pessimism that sometimes appears to grip their fans, the Pirates' season opener unfolded as an encouraging affirmation of what Clint Hurdle has been saying all along. Bear in mind, the manager never said his Bucs could put a hurt on Roy Halladay.Yet the 1-0 loss on Thursday to Doc's Phillies couldn't detract from a sharp seven-inning start by Erik Bedard, who then was picked up with a shutout inning apiece from Chris Resop and Juan Cruz. "If the starters give us more innings, go deeper into games, it'll make our bullpen that much stronger," Hurdle has said repeatedly. The starters' bar has been set at seven innings. Bedard cleared it, setting up the strong staff effort. This is a combination that should click well all season, particularly with Evan Meek back at full strength. Meek's Spring Training had begun tentatively, leaving Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage unsure about whether the 2010 All-Star could fully rebound from the shoulder tendinitis that marred his '11 in time to be a weapon out of the gate. But it ended on a high, with both Meek's pitches and Meek himself showing their old fire. "The difference between now and a month-and-a-half ago is night and day," said Meek, who lauds Searage for giving him the workload he needed to regain full strength. "Ray has done an awesome job in getting me innings, and throwing me multiple innings. "Each time I went out there, I got more consistent and more confident that my stuff is starting to come around. Also working with Ray on my mechanics and looking at video from 2010, which is what we tried to get back to ... we've been able to put all that together. But now with the season here, all that is out the window. It's time to compete." After allowing five runs in his first two outings, covering 1 2/3 innings, Meek competed exceptionally in his final eight exhibition appearances. He rationed just two more runs in 10 innings. Meek appreciates the difference between Spring Training, when he pitches according to the schedule posted daily on the bulletin board and can plan accordingly, and the regular season, when he must pitch when the phone rings. "But I know how to prepare for that," he said. "I now know in my head that I can pitch multiple innings. I know that I'm healthy. I know all these things. Now I can take the mound and focus on what I do best, and try to continue to get better. They've done a great job jump-starting all that for me." Adapting to pitching multiple innings is important to the team, because at the outset Jason Grilli appears to own the eighth-inning setup role. In 2010, once he established himself as the setup guy, Meek was a one-and-done pitcher, his last 21 appearances lasting only one inning. Meek appears to be well on his way to making up for the letdown of not being the guy Hurdle, who in 2010 was Texas' hitting coach between managerial gigs, had heard about. "He knows, because he's been told, but he's never seen it for himself," Meek said. "To come into last season with high expectations, then have that happen, was disappointing to me. I want to show him what I can do, and that I can be that late-inning guy for him. It's pleasing to know that I feel like I'm ahead of where I was at any point last year. "But we still have some work to do. It's been fun getting back on board, but even during the season you always try to get better. But they couldn't have done a better job of helping me get my confidence back, of preparing me for the next six months." It isn't only the speed and break of his pitches that are telling Hurdle the 2010-model Meek is back. His body language on the mound conveys the same message. "Absolutely, I feel more confident," Meek said. "The fewer things you have to think about, the more comfortable you are and can just focus on getting the hitter out. "But once you're under the lights, all the preparation goes away. You have to take it upon yourself to prepare, to be accountable, to be ready." The lights will be on, for the first time, Saturday night. Will Meek?
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.