Bucs' bullpen finally turning a corner

Bucs' bullpen finally turning a corner

OAKLAND -- The names haven't changed all that much. The roles haven't been dramatically altered. So what's the difference between this Pirates bullpen, the most effective in the Majors over the last week, and the group that too often struggled the first three months of the season?

It's more a matter of performance, and Pittsburgh's bullpen is performing at a high level. Three Pirates' relievers combined to throw four scoreless innings in the Bucs' 7-3 win over the A's on Friday night at the Coliseum, running the bullpen's scoreless streak to 24 2/3 innings.

It's been a group effort. Each of the seven relievers on their roster has played a part, and several pitchers who couldn't find their way earlier this season have stepped up lately.

"The guys that are coming around have done it before. So it's not anything new," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We had some guys that weren't matching up how we've seen them pitch.

"We've got some guys getting things done. ... Hughes is working on improving. We're finding a better stride out there, for sure."

Right-hander A.J. Schugel, a non-roster invitee this spring, threw a scoreless sixth. Arquimedes Caminero, who struggled in April and May after a breakthrough 2015 season, overpowered the A's for two innings. Closer Mark Melancon, steady as ever, tossed a perfect ninth.

Schugel Ks Davis

The other four have contributed as well, from setup men Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz to swingman Juan Nicasio, bumped from the rotation to a more suitable bullpen role, and ground ball specialist Jared Hughes.

"Watson's been good. Feliz has been good. Melancon's been out of sight," Hurdle said. "The other guys, we've been working with to make some adjustments."

Entering the year, the Pirates bullpen was thought to be one of their strengths. That didn't play out for much of April, May and June, as Pittsburgh's relievers ranked 20th in the Majors in Win Probability Added.

Melancon was a sure thing, and Watson and Feliz made rare missteps. Small deficits frequently turned into huge holes. Big leads were seldom safe. The front end of the Pirates bullpen was leaky, and general manager Neal Huntington and Hurdle searched for ways to plug it, believing the answers were within their organization.

Sure enough, that has changed recently, in part because the middle relief group now appears deeper than before. Schugel has emerged as a useful weapon, particularly against right-handed hitters. Nicasio is a natural fit in the bullpen, where he thrived for the Dodgers last season.

Caminero looked as confident and dominant as ever Friday, striking out four of the six hitters he faced.

"You could tell, too. Me and Jordy [Mercer] looked at each other, like, yeah, he's about to throw all fastballs," second baseman Josh Harrison said. "You could tell. We were like, 'Good luck.'"

Since Caminero went on the disabled list in late May, he's allowed two runs on 14 hits with 11 strikeouts over 12 2/3 innings. What's changed?

"Throw strikes. Get outs," Caminero said, simply. "I'm not thinking about anything right now. I just throw strikes. hit the target, hit whatever the catcher calls and then go with it."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.