05/15/12 8:00 PM ET
Rookie Hughes emerges as key Bucs reliever
By David Villavicencio / Special to MLB.com
Closer Joel Hanrahan has collected seven saves, while setup men Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz have been solid. But rookie Jared Hughes has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball.
Hughes leads all rookies with a 1.45 ERA, and has thrown seven consecutive scoreless innings heading into Tuesday's game against the Marlins. The right-hander believes pitching aggressively in the strike zone has helped him find success early this season.
"Keeping the ball down and attacking the zone," Hughes said. "If I can keep the ball down in the strike zone and make guys swing the bat, I'll be all right. I trust my fielders because we have some good ones. If I can do that, I'm going to have a lot of success."
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage believes the 11 innings Hughes pitched in the big leagues last season have helped the 26-year-old enter the 2012 campaign well prepared to succeed in the Majors.
"The newness wore off last year," Searage said. "Now he has an idea of what to do. He had a solid spring and he's had a solid season so far. He brings something to the table that all these young kids have, and that's that he wants to compete. He just lays it out on the table, and whatever happens, happens. And he's got the mental makeup to bounce back from adversity the next day."
Like most Pirates relievers, Hughes has not had to deal with much adversity this season. The right-hander has allowed just three earned runs over 18 2/3 innings.
"Getting ahead in the count is always a key," Hughes said. "We're all super competitive guys down there [in the bullpen]. That really works for us. When we get in the game, we do whatever we can to put up a zero and get a hitter out."
While Hughes' season is off to a strong start, he says it could still be better.
"We could be undefeated or be in first place in our division," Hughes said. "I think what's really important to me is the success of the Pirates."
After slow start, Barajas finding his swing
MIAMI -- When the Pirates signed Rod Barajas, they were expecting a veteran catcher who would work well with the pitching staff and provide some power to their lineup.
Barajas seems to have connected with Pirates pitchers, because the staff's 3.12 ERA is second best in the Majors. However, his offense got off to a slow start, batting just .143 in April.
"I think early on, my swing wasn't in a bad place," Barajas said. "A lot of balls that I'd hit, I would just miss a little bit, but I was putting some good at-bats together. But once you struggle, you start trying to find fixes and you start tinkering with things that you don't need to tinker with. That kind of made the struggles last a little longer."
But Barajas's bat has heated up some in May, thanks to putting in some extra work with manager Clint Hurdle and hitting coach Gregg Ritchie.
"We've gotten a little routine," Barajas said. "For me, the big thing is my swing path and being able to stay through the ball. When things aren't going well, I'm rolling over or my bottom hand isn't guiding me in the right direction. We've really been working on my swing path to try and keep the barrel in the zone as long as possible and finish through the ball."
The new routine has already paid some early dividends. Heading into Tuesday's game, Barajas was batting .250 with three doubles and two homers over nine games in May.
"I think now we've found a solution with me keeping this routine to emphasize the swing path through the ball," Barajas said. "I think that will help me out through the rest of the season."
Swinging through the balls is part of what has made Barajas one of the most prolific homer-hitting catchers in baseball today. Since 2004, Barajas ranks sixth among catchers with 116 homers.
While he may not hit for much average, Barajas has hit for enough power that he ranks among star catchers like Victor Martinez, Brian McCann and Mike Napoli.
"I've come to accept the kind of hitter that I am," Barajas said. "I'm not going to hit for average and not going to hit a lot of ground balls. I am who I am. I've come to accept that at this age, things aren't just going to change. I just try to stay consistent with what I do well and really work on that. I think that's definitely helped me keep the power numbers up and be productive."
Down in lineup, Presley making adjustments
MIAMI -- The Pirates have several hitters struggling at the plate recently.
Those struggles have caused manager Clint Hurdle to try some different things with his lineup with the hope that it would help his hitters find success again.
One of those hitters is Alex Presley, whom Hurdle dropped from second in the lineup to seventh with the hope that he will relax and return to the player that hit .298 over 52 big league games last season.
"It relieves a little pressure not being in the top of the lineup and feeling that need to get on base for the people behind you," Presley said. "It's a good chance to try to get myself together."
The 26-year-old has been working on a minor adjustment that he believes will make a big difference in his offensive production.
"I've been trying to finish my swing two-handed instead of one-handed," Presley said. "I've always done it one-handed, but I've always walked that fine line of maybe letting go too soon. I'm definitely trying to finish two-handed through the ball. I know it seems simple. It's nothing groundbreaking, but I think it will help."
Presley is one of several speedy Bucs that the team expects to steal a lot of bases this season. However, Presley has stolen just three in seven attempts. The low success rate is not uncommon so far for Pirates players, as the team has succeeded on only 16 of their 31 stolen-base attempts coming into Tuesday's game.
"Last night, [John] Buck threw me out from his knees," Presley said. "That's just one of those things where you just tip your hat. There have been pitchouts and they've guessed right on us. We try to take more risks, so with more risk comes more chances to get thrown out. We're going to keep running and make people make plays."
While the Pirates' speed has not led to as many stolen bases as they might have liked so far this year, Presley believes their speed has been a benefit in their brief stay at Marlins Park.
"I think here at this park, it's been good in the outfield, because it's big and we can cover a lot," Presley said. "That works to our advantage."
David Villavicencio is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.