STL@PIT: Hurdle on Walker's clutch three-run homer

PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle's emphasis on being selective seems to be paying off.

Throughout the lineup, the Pirates have pieced together more effective at-bats this month, which may be due to hitters watching themselves taking good swings. Hurdle said the team has put together three-minute tapes of a player swinging well in the box, but more importantly, swinging at good pitches.

In May, the Pirates collectively have a .353 on-base percentage entering Saturday's game against the Nationals. It's the best mark in the Majors this month, and a major improvement from the .296 on-base percentage the team had in the season's first month.

The change in amount of baserunners is not coming from walks, either, as the Pirates' walk figures in May are almost identical to April's. No, the disparity is coming with what players are doing when the bat leaves their shoulder.

The Bucs' .280 average this month is a drastic increase from the .221 clip they hit in 2014's first 26 games, and the squad's batting average on balls in play is .339 in May, up 80 points from last month.

"It all starts with what pitches you swing at," Hurdle said. "Because, those of us who have played, there were pitches I tried to hit that nobody could hit, but I continually tried to hit them. The thing we're always mindful of is, 'Did you get a good pitch to hit?' That sets everything up."

With better swings and better numbers come better results, too. The Pirates are 11-10 this month after a 10-16 start through the end of April.

Grilli appears as closer earlier than expected

WSH@PIT: Grilli talks about save, win in return

PITTSBURGH -- With the game on the line in the ninth inning Friday, Jason Grilli jogged out to the pitcher's mound at PNC Park. It was a familiar sight, but for at least last night, one that was unexpected.

Only a few hours after Grilli was activated from the disabled list after missing just more than a month with a strained left oblique, he collected his first save since April 14. Prior to the 4-3 victory against Washington, manager Clint Hurdle said Grilli would be available, but not in the closer's role. However, with the way the game shook out, and given the amount of available arms in the Pirates' bullpen, Hurdle turned to Grilli in the ninth.

Hurdle was asked Saturday if Grilli was going to return permanently to his ninth-inning spot. Hurdle said that was the plan, though it won't happen immediately.

"I want to make sure we monitor his health," Hurdle said. "He threw some good pitches. His command, I think command has some room for growth. The velocity started showing on some of the pitches he made. I think he's in a very good place. The goal is to get him back at the end. The timing of that, I think is something we're still going to have conversations about."

The manager noted Grilli, as well as left-handed relievers Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, would not be available Saturday night against the Nationals.

Grilli converted 33 saves for the Pirates last season and was an All-Star, but had his share of trouble early this season. Before being sidelined, Grilli blew three saves in seven chances and has a season ERA of 4.00. Despite issuing a leadoff walk Friday night, Grilli was able to pick up his fifth save of the season, as he struck out one batter and threw 22 pitches to finish the game.

Righty Mark Melancon, who was the Pirates' setup man last season, was the primary reliever Hurdle turned to in the ninth when Grilli was injured. Melancon converted eight of his 10 save opportunities, and would likely be used Saturday if a save situation arises.

First number, last word

978: Days between stolen bases for Clint Barmes. The shortstop recorded his first steal in two and a half seasons Friday night. The last time he swiped a bag was on Sept. 18, 2011, when he was a member of the Astros.

"Once it's out of the pitcher's hand, that's when you take ownership of it. Sometimes we want to take ownership of it before it's out of his hand. We have a preconceived mindset of what we're trying to do." - Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, on patience at the plate.

Worth noting

• The Pirates have the player who has been hit with the most pitches in the Majors (Neil Walker, eight) and the pitcher who has hit the most batters (Charlie Morton, 10).

• The Pirates have the most one-run wins in baseball this season with 13. Ten of those victories have come at home.