6/30/2014 2:20 P.M. ET
Watson more than a lefty specialist for Pirates
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- The National League's All-Star pitching staff will be announced Sunday on the Taco Bell All-Star Selection Show at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, and if his name is included, Tony Watson will become the first left-handed reliever in Pirates history so honored.
"Is that right?" Watson said, with wide eyes. "Wow, that would be really special."
That pretty well describes the 29-year-old Iowan.
Although his manager, Clint Hurdle, prefers the description "power tool."
"That's what he has become on the mound," Hurdle said. "We've got a special guy."
Think left-hander, and the knee-jerk reaction invariably is matchup reliever. Watson shatters that mold, with splits that document he is even tougher on right-handed hitters than on lefties. That's why he likely will be a closer in the future.
Watson's matured changeup often is credited with his success against right-handers, who this season are hitting him at a .210 clip, compared to .216 by lefties.
"That's become a big pitch for him," Hurdle said.
By setting up his harder pitches, it indeed has turned Watson into a strikeout pitcher. He has 48 whiffs in 37 2/3 innings this season, compared to 54 in 71 2/3 last season.
However, that explanation for Watson's overall shackling of right-handed hitters doesn't mesh with his track record. He has always chewed them up (.192 in 2013 and .201 lifetime). The stuff plays, but the ice in Watson's veins has always played better.
Regard Watson's appearance on June 22 in Chicago. He came on in the eighth to protect a 2-1 lead over the Cubs. Back-to-back singles to lead off the inning and a sacrifice bunt placed the lead run within 180 feet of home. The place was going bonkers around him.
Watson silenced Wrigley Field with strikeouts of, yes, right-handed pinch-hitters Welington Castillo and Justin Ruggiano.
As dramatic as it was, it was also typical: Watson has allowed an earned run in four of 59 appearances since last Aug. 4, with a 0.62 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP over that stretch.
Those are some starry numbers.
Hurdle prefers to not pull starters mid-inning
PITTSBURGH -- One game into the second half of the season, the Pirates are one of four Major League teams without a complete game. You have to like the odds of the 2014 Bucs finishing the season as the first in club history to not have any starting pitcher go the distance.
Credit -- or blame -- manager Clint Hurdle's philosophy for that. Others' common approach when a starter gets into the later innings is to let him return to the mound and "we'll make a change if anyone gets on base." You always hear that caveat.
Hurdle holds onto his own belief.
"I would much rather remove a pitcher too soon than too late," Hurdle said. "If I have to go get him and have him walk off the mound in trouble, that's on me. That's the worst."
Combined with another of Hurdle's decrees -- giving relievers clean innings, avoiding having them enter with men on base -- the Pirates have a dynamic in the works. Through 82 games, only five times has a starter been relieved in the middle of a late inning, seventh or later, after recording an out -- a quite common development on other teams.
Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage decide after the completion of an inning whether their man has had it, and that's it.
It doesn't always work, and the subsequent burden on the bullpen can be cumulative.
Most memorably, on April 20, Gerrit Cole was excused after eight innings with a 2-1 lead over the Brewers, even though he had only thrown 91 pitches and had retired the last three men he had faced. After Cole exited, Jason Grilli surrendered a ninth-inning homer to Ryan Braun, leading to a 3-2 loss in 14 innings.
And Bucs relievers have collaborated on scoreless shifts in only five of the last 16 games. They have surrendered a total of 26 runs in 35 innings in the other 11 games.
Bucs to keep hot-hitting Harrison in utility role
PITTSBURGH -- As Josh Harrison keeps getting hotter -- he's 5-for-11 in his last three games and has a hit in eight of his last nine -- Pirates brass keeps telling fans to chill.
Both manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington like Harrison right where he is, as a super utility man liable to pop up anywhere on the field. So notwithstanding his .306 average and .811 OPS, Harrison isn't replacing any regular.
In the lineup, that is. In recognition of his contributions, however, Harrison is about to give Andrew McCutchen a significant bump.
McCutchen has been the club's nominee the past two seasons for the Heart & Hustle Award, presented since 2005 by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association to players "who demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and traditions of the game."
That's Harrison all right, Hurdle said the other day with a knowing wink.
"One guy has always been our candidate, but we might have a different guy this year," Hurdle said. "This is the players' own thing, and they're using a different lens this year. We've sent Andrew out to be the guy, this year there may be a different sheriff in town."
Harrison is now popularly regarded as a player who found his mojo out of nowhere. "What's gotten into him?" is the frequent question.
Insiders know Harrison is the same guy as always, just getting more opportunities to be that guy.
"The great thing is, he's always played the game this way, he's just getting on the field to do it more often," Hurdle said. "There's a hunger there that's significant. He plays with an edge."
Harrison has clearly given the Bucs that edge. Since Harrison became a revolving regular on May 18, the Pirates are 25-15.
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.