Pittsburgh Pirates: Is the bullpen fading?

Jason Grilli (Photo courtesy of Gene J. Puskar)

Jason Grilli (Photo courtesy of Gene J. Puskar)

The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has been clutch all season for the team, but as October approaches the recent struggles of the “Shark Tank” is apparent.

In late May, the relievers combined for 9 2/3 shutout innings in a pair of 1-0 extra-inning wins over powerful Detroit in a three-day span. A month later, they combined for 12 two-hit shutout innings in a marathon win over Milwaukee.

In June the Pirates bullpen was the hottest thing in baseball. The Pirates finished a road trip on June 26 where they went 7-2 and swept the Seattle Mariners. The bullpen was throwing 3.55 innings a game and dominating everyone the faced.

Bryan Morris had thrown a numerous amount of pitches and was ranked 14th since being recalled in April. Justin Wilson was being overworked, throwing 723 pitches. Closer Jason Grilli was 28th with 585 pitches, and Tony Watson followed with 575.

The Shark Tank was working hard and had the second highest workload in baseball. The one-two punch of Mark Melancon and Grilli was practically unstoppable.

On July 22nd, the Pirates lost Grilli when he suffered the forearm strain against the Nationals.

The Pirates never batted an eye, Melancon stepped into the closer role and was almost perfect, except for a Starling Marte blunder.  Then this week Melancon blew two saves in three nights. On Wednesday Melancon blew his third save of the season, allowing two runs on four hits in a loss to the Padres. Two nights later he spoiled another brilliant performance by Francisco Liriano when he was unable to protect a three-run advantage against the Reds.

This raised many questions. Why isn’t Grilli closing? Is Melancon over worked? Is the bullpen faltering?

Over the last week, Wilson has not seen any action. Manager Clint Hurdle gave the young lefty the last week off. Wilson has pitched 71 innings prior to Saturday, and the Pirates noticed a drop in his velocity over his last few appearances.

Wilson has been excellent in relief for the Pirates this year, with a 2.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP and he is tied for 16th for most innings pitched for all relievers. Pittsburgh was hoping a few days rest would benefit the first-time reliever over the last week of the season.

Grilli returned to the Pirates on Sept. 4, but not in a closers role. The 38-year-old returned after a short rehab stint in the minors. The Pirates decided to ease Grilli back into the closer role, but he posted a 12.00 ERA and 2.67 WHIP over three innings in his first four games back.  Over the last week, Grilli has slowly returned to form, but he still isn’t 100 percent.

Is the amount of innings pitched finally catching up to the Shark Tank?

It appears so. With Grilli not completely back, Wilson fading and Melancon struggling, the Pirates could be in trouble. The best bullpen in the National League may be one of the weakest in the Hunt for October.

Hopefully this was just a small skid for the relievers. On Saturday, Grilli returned to the closer role and earned his 31st save by pitching a scoreless ninth.

Morris and Wilson combined to pitch a scoreless eighth. Morris got Derrick Robinson to ground out before walking Brandon Phillips. The Pirates called upon Wilson to come in and finish the inning, where he got Joey Votto to ground into a double play.

One good night for the Shark Tank doesn’t answer all the questions, but hopefully they can regain that dominance Pirates fans have grown accustomed to. If not, the Pirates will not go very far in the playoffs.