As for the bullpen, it's been way better than anticipated -- to the tune of an NL-best 2.24 ERA this month. Pittsburgh's relievers were used in plenty of high-leverage situations last week, including five games that were decided by two runs or fewer, and held up to the task. Their clutch performances solidified the Bullpen of the Week Award presented by The Hartford.
As part of the MLB Prevailing Moments program, each Monday throughout the 2016 season, MLB.com is honoring the "Bullpen of the Week presented by The Hartford." An industry-wide panel of MLB experts, including legendary stats guru Bill James, constructed a metric based on James' widely renowned game-score formula, to provide a weekly measurement of team-bullpen performance.
Here's how the Bullpen Rating System is compiled for each week. For reference, a weekly score of 100 is considered outstanding:
• Add 1.5 points for each out recorded
• Add 1.5 points for each strikeout
• Add 5 points for a save
• Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed
• Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed
• Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed
• Subtract 1 point for each walk
• Subtract 5 points for a blown save
Pirate relievers claimed their second Bullpen of the Week award of the season by limiting opponents to only three earned runs on 10 hits over 21 1/3 innings, giving them 119.5 total points. Tony Watson, taking over Melancon's spot at the back end, tallied three saves last week while Neftali Feliz added a fourth. Pittsburgh's bullpen stepped up in a big way in the team's four-game sweep of Milwaukee, striking out 25 while allowing just two earned runs in 16 1/3 innings.
"I feel like we've done a good job against bullpens for most of the season, but this series has been difficult for us against their bullpen," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com columnist Mike Bauman. "They've been really good against us for sure. It's a credit to them. They traded their best reliever, their closer, who had a really successful run for them. And some guys have really stepped up."
Pittsburgh's bullpen displayed its ability to "step up" by withstanding adversity and succeeding despite unexpected circumstances. Here's a look at their biggest obstacle:
The unexpected: The Pirates were holding a comfortable 5-0 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth on Friday in Milwaukee before starter Ryan Vogelsong allowed a walk and a ground-rule double to the Brewers' Keon Broxton to put runners on second and third with one out. With Vogelsong at 93 pitches, manager Clint Hurdle went to the bullpen and brought in Jared Hughes, who had allowed only 12 of 33 (36.3 percent) inherited baserunners to score before Friday's game.
On his first pitch, however, Hughes gave up a three-run homer to rookie Orlando Arcia to improve Milwaukee's win probability by 11.7 percent, according to Fangraphs. Hughes continued to struggle, giving up a walk and a single and prompting Hurdle to make another call to the bullpen as the Brewers built momentum.
How they prevailed: Left-hander Antonio Bastardo entered with two men on and two outs and struck out Scooter Gennett to end any further threat in the sixth. Southpaw Felipe Rivero, who was acquired from Washington in the Melancon trade, took over in the seventh and retired the Brewers in order on just 13 pitches.
"We felt comfortable that Rivero could step right into a mid- to high-leverage role," Neal Huntington, the Pirates' executive vice president and general manager, told MLB.com on Sunday. "We recognized that we were trading one of the best closers in the game; that would have a significant impact on us over the next two months. But in return we felt like we were getting a reliever that has a significant ceiling and five-plus years of potential contributions."
With the Pirates stalling at the plate, Feliz was able to work around a walk and a steal by Broxton to record a clean eighth inning. Then Watson, attempting to earn his second save in as many days, showed his own resiliency. With two outs, Watson gave up a single to Ryan Braun and a walk to Chris Carter; the two then pulled off a double steal that put the potential tying run on second base. The Pirates' new closer bore down, however, getting Milwaukee outfielder Domingo Santana to pop up softly to second base and end the game.
"We felt very comfortable that Watson and Feliz could pick up some of those big late-inning, high-leverage situations," said Huntington.
His manager seems to agree, as the Pirates -- and, in particular, their bullpen -- are putting the rest of the NL on notice going into the season's final weeks.
"We've been blessed with a good bullpen since '13," Hurdle said on Sunday. "This bullpen has been able to hit a switch lately. It's been a complete, collective work of very solid pitching out there by everybody."
The Pirates' opponent to begin this week, the Cubs, finished second in the BRS standings, with 103.5 points, to set up a potentially fun matchup of streaking bullpens at Wrigley Field. Since he joined the Cubs on July 26, closer Aroldis Chapman has made an immediate impact in Wrigleyville. He's tallied 10 saves in that time, ranking just behind Seattle's Edwin Diaz and Atlanta's Jim Johnson (11) for most in the Majors.