Pirates bullpen scuffling early in season

Injuries, short starts putting Hurdle in tough position with relievers

Pirates bullpen scuffling early in season

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates began this season believing their bullpen would be a strength, a versatile group of shut-down relievers they could summon not just because they needed to, but because they wanted to.

But as their early-season losing streak reached four games Friday night at PNC Park, the Bucs bullpen continued to struggle.

Called upon to pitch 4 1/3 innings after Jeff Locke walked seven batters in 4 2/3, Pittsburgh's relief corps combined to allow four runs on two homers -- both of them hit by Ryan Braun -- and five runs overall while serving up six hits in an 8-4 loss to the Brewers.

The Pirates have allowed 30 runs over their last four losses. The Tigers and Brewers scored 20 of those 30 runs in 16 1/3 innings against the Pirates bullpen. Pittsburgh's relievers also have allowed 25 hits and five homers during that stretch.

"We need to execute our pitches better," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We need to execute our locations better."

It's still early, only 11 games into a 162-game season, but the Pirates own the fifth-highest bullpen ERA (5.49) in the Major Leagues. Last season, their relievers posted a 2.67 ERA, the Majors' lowest mark.

One of the issues, as Hurdle pointed out, is that the Pirates have already gotten away from their plan to use the bullpen at their desire. The group was already set back by injuries, as reliever Jared Hughes opened the season on the disabled list.

Then Juan Nicasio's start lasted three innings Tuesday, forcing the Bucs to use Kyle Lobstein for three innings and Cory Luebke for two. On Wednesday, Ryan Vogelsong was bumped into the rotation to fill in for Francisco Liriano, so the Pirates called up A.J. Schugel from Triple-A Indianapolis to fill out the staff.

Vogelsong pitched well, but the Pirates had to use four relievers to piece together the final four innings of that loss. On Thursday, they called up right-hander Rob Scahill and put Luebke on the disabled list.

"When you get things in the rotation that got a little complicated for us -- Nicasio's three-inning out, a spot start -- it changes the entire dynamic," Hurdle said. "You end up using your 'pen when you have to, not when you want to."

That was again the case Friday night. Down a run in the eighth, Hurdle sent in setup man Neftali Feliz, who is used to pitching with a lead. Feliz served up Braun's second homer, putting the game out of reach.

"I've done a lot of studying how guys should be able to pitch any inning. My eyes tell me different from time to time," Hurdle said. "You're not getting the results you want and you think you can get.

"You're going to keep feeding them the ball, keep working with them, keep getting them better. We've given up a lot of runs here the first 11 games of the season."

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.