Bucs taking innovative approach with bullpen

Setup man Watson to be used in high-leverage situations

Bucs taking innovative approach with bullpen

PITTSBURGH -- Tony Watson pitched a scoreless inning Sunday afternoon against the Cardinals in the Pirates' 4-1 win on Opening Day at PNC Park. Strikeout looking, flyout, strikeout swinging.

The only unusual part of Watson's characteristically efficient workday? The inning he pitched.

Watson breezed through the seventh. Yes, the seventh. Not the eighth.

Constantly looking for an edge in a highly competitive league, the Bucs are trying to squeeze every drop of potential out of their club. Now, it seems Pittsburgh has taken its open-minded, analytically inclined approach to the bullpen.

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Manager Clint Hurdle told Watson on Sunday morning that he might seek out late-inning matchups for the shutdown setup man rather than automatically giving him the eighth. Sure enough, the Cards sent three left-handed hitters to the plate in the seventh, so Hurdle called upon the southpaw.

"I'll look at opportunities how to best leverage Watson," Hurdle said. "If it makes more sense to use him in the seventh, I think that's an area that we'll go to and see how it sets up from there."

The Pirates have been at the forefront of baseball innovation in terms of defensive shifts and pitching philosophies. In 2015, they dug into data-driven rest patterns, nutrition and training. This spring, they defied traditional lineup construction to bat on-base machine John Jaso leadoff and star center fielder Andrew McCutchen second.

Now, the Bucs may eschew traditional bullpen roles -- aside from Mark Melancon, the closer -- to gain another small but potentially significant advantage.

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"We'll watch the maturation of the bullpen and different individuals out there, what roles they can bite into and set into," Hurdle said. "I do anticipate us doing a number of different things -- not just with the bullpen -- with the lineup, moving runners, activating runners. It should be a fun club. I'm looking forward to watching our club play."

The Pirates can be flexible because they have another proven setup option in Neftali Feliz, the former Rangers closer and the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner. Feliz is coming off a down season, but he's only 27 years old and his 2.53 ERA and 1.01 WHIP from 2009-14 reflect his ability.

"This guy's been pitching high-leverage innings for good teams the last couple years," Watson said. "He's more than capable to eat up some innings for us. It doesn't matter what inning. Whenever we get called, we'll be ready."

After Watson's clean seventh, Feliz threw a perfect eighth and Melancon handled the ninth.

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For so long, the knock against more liberal bullpen management has been that relievers need to know their role. Traditional baseball logic dictates that you simply can't have an eighth-inning pitcher work the seventh.

But traditional baseball logic no longer governs the Bucs' thinking. If they need Watson in the eighth, he'll pitch the eighth. If Watson is best suited for the seventh on a given night, that's fine, too.

"It doesn't matter for me. Whenever my name's called, I'll be ready," Watson said. "All of us take a lot of pride in getting the ball to Mel. No matter what inning it is, it doesn't matter. We're just out there trying to get outs."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.