Watson believes he can anchor Bucs 'pen

Closer struggles in spring debut, gives up three runs in two-thirds IP

Watson believes he can anchor Bucs 'pen

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tony Watson looks a little lighter this spring, but it's not because of a change to his workout routine. If anything, he slimmed down by chasing after 2-year-old daughter Wynn and 9-month-old son Theodore.

"We're on the go, moving around, not sitting down much," Watson said. "Fun offseason."

Otherwise, the winter was business as usual for Watson. Yet this spring is different for Watson in one regard. After years spent setting up Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, he will be Pittsburgh's closer and bullpen leader from Day 1.

"You are the guy. Mark was the guy the last couple years, Grilli before him," Watson said. "We're a unit -- everybody in here knows that everybody's together -- but to be the leader of the unit, it's important."

Watson set out to lead by example. The Pirates have a host of young pitchers in camp, and Watson knows they're watching. Mirroring Melancon, Watson strives to be dependable in the volatile profession of late-inning relief pitching.

He stuck to the routine that's made him one of the Majors' most durable relievers. Since 2012, Watson ranks third among all relievers in innings (345 1/3) and second in appearances (360). He's averaged 72 appearances per season since then while posting a 2.40 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, and consistency remains the goal in 2017.

"You've got to be steady," Watson said. "You've got to stick to your routine, keep doing it, be consistent every day you show up here and do it."

Watson struggled Tuesday in his second Spring Training outing, a 12-0 loss to Toronto, getting only two outs without finishing his assigned inning, but said he felt fine physically.

"Results weren't what we wanted at the end of the day, but just kept going back to it," Watson said. "Got to get that fastball command going. …That's what spring's for."

After three years as one of baseball's best setup men, Watson took a step back last season. His ERA (3.06) and walk rate (1.3 per nine innings) climbed, his ground-ball rate declined to 43.8 percent, and his home run total spiked from three to 10, a career high. The home run issues were particularly problematic and uncharacteristic for Watson, who allowed eight over the previous two years combined.

Watson pointed to pitch execution, not a breakdown in mechanics or mentality. Three of the seven came in April, and he gave up four in September -- including three in one disastrous blown save against the Cardinals. According to Statcast™, eight of the pitches taken deep last year were left above the lower third of the strike zone.

Manager Clint Hurdle has wondered if Watson's heavy workload may have been a factor in his inconsistent season. But Hurdle has said it was just a "speed bump" for Watson.

"It wasn't his cleanest year from start to finish as far as stuff, as far as execution of pitches," Hurdle said. "He had earned every opportunity in our mind, when that move was made, to get the first crack at it."

The Pirates didn't hesitate then, and they have no doubts about Watson being their closer on Opening Day.

"I really enjoyed it," Watson said. "It was a good experience and everything I thought it was going to be. I'm excited to get out there again and do it again."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.