PITTSBURGH -- Few ballplayers look more focused on the diamond than Pirates reliever Jared Hughes. With his piercing glare and rattlesnake-like intensity, Hughes comes off as a serious man, someone you wouldn't want to cross. But in reality, he's a 6-foot-7 sweetheart. In fact, that sentiment generally goes for the rest of the Pirates' bullpen, too. The unit that has been so critical in keeping the Bucs in games this season, whose pitchers have displayed nothing but concentration and poise in tight spot after tight spot, knows full well the importance of staying loose and having fun.
"In the clubhouse, we listen to Pearl Jam and relax," Hughes said, referring to Jason Grilli's influence on the stereo. "Grilli always puts Pearl Jam on," closer Joel Hanrahan said. "I like to argue about Pearl Jam and tell him to mix it up a little bit." At 35, Grilli has also brought an additional veteran presence to the bullpen. While Hanrahan has been responsible for closing down the ninth inning, Grilli is making a name for himself as a setup man, shutting down hitters in the eighth. But on Sunday against the Royals, Grilli found himself in an unfamiliar situation. With Hanrahan having pitched three consecutive days, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle put Grilli in the closer's role. He came in to pitch the ninth, and with two on and two out, struck out Johnny Giavotella to nail down the win -- and the sweep.
Did you see his reaction? The guy was pumped.
"It is a good feeling. You do it in the eighth, and it seems like it should be the same as the ninth, but it's not," Grilli said. "You could tell I was a little jazzed to be able to get the chance to do that every once in a while. It's fun."
Thanks to Grilli, the Pirates held on for a 3-2 win. Their record in games decided by one run this season is 17-10, and this latest victory moved them into a first-place tie with Cincinnati in the National League Central.
But don't look for Grilli to close often. While there actually have been times when Hurdle went to Grilli in the eighth and considered just leaving him in until the final out, the manager is reluctant to fiddle with his current formula.
"At his age, with the results that we're getting right now, I'm just not one to meddle with it too much," Hurdle said. "I like the way it's rolling."
When it comes to the handling of his relievers, Hurdle has been careful to make sure none of them pitches more than two days in a row, with the exception of Hanrahan. The manager has also been reluctant to call the bullpen and have somebody warm up unless he is sure the pitcher would enter the game, which is something his pitchers have appreciated.
"It's just something you have to monitor, part of managing your bullpen efficiently," Grilli said, referring to wasted warm-up sessions. "They're just as good as an outing, and can be pretty taxing on a relief pitcher."
Grilli has pitched 24 innings this year, and over that span has given up just four earned runs while striking out 39 batters. He's averaged 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 2012, a rate far higher than his career average.
"I enjoy it here. I'm very comfortable here," said Grilli, who came to Pittsburgh midseason last year. "When you have the firepower that we have, it's pretty special. You could throw any one of us out there in any given situation -- and really, I don't say that lightly. I believe that and I think every one of us knows that."
The Pirates relievers aren't low on confidence, and for good reason. Following the sweep of Kansas City, the bullpen ERA checked in at 2.44, second best in baseball. Its 12 wins in relief ranked only behind Cincinnati and Baltimore, whose bullpens each have 14.
The only Pirates relievers to have an ERA above 3.00 are righty Chris Resop and lefty Tony Watson. Hanrahan has turned in a 2.63 ERA while going 17-for-19 in save opportunities. And Juan Cruz, now with his seventh big league club, has compiled a 2.08 ERA over 21 2/3 innings of work.
Brad Lincoln has also been lights out as a reliever, surrendering only eight earned runs over 30 innings. And Doug Slaten, who signed with Pittsburgh in the offsesason, hasn't given up a run in five appearances.
But perhaps the most surprising Pirates reliever this year has been Hughes, a 26-year-old California kid enjoying his rookie season in the Major Leagues.
"Everybody wants to win," said Hughes, who has a 1.78 ERA over 30-plus innings. "It's about winning, and we're going to do whatever it takes."
Hughes earned a "W" in the stat column for his role in the Pirates' 5-3 victory over the Royals on Saturday. Entering the game in the sixth with men on first and second and two outs, he promptly induced a lineout from Yuniesky Betancourt -- who had homered earlier in the game -- before sailing through the seventh and eighth innings.
Then it was time for Hanrahan, a player Hughes said he tries to emulate.
"He's our fearless leader. I try to follow him," Hughes said. "I watch his intro. I watch him run in. I try to take in as much as I can."
On Hanrahan's part, though, those comments aren't taken too seriously.
"Hughes is mad," the closer joked. "He's scared of me, because I told him he didn't give the bullpen any love the other day."
Regardless, Hanrahan, 30, appreciates the exceptional job Hughes and the rest of the bullpen have put in this season. He's especially grateful for Grilli, a guy he thanks for so often dealing with an opposing team's heavy hitters toward the end of the game.
But when other relievers are pitching well, it can put Hanrahan in a tight spot.
"They almost make it harder on me," he said, "because I don't really want to come in after them -- after they go in there and strike out the side all the time."
Most of time, though, Hanrahan has matched their output. He's blown just two saves this season -- half of the four blown by the entire bullpen, which has allowed fewer save opportunities to slip away than any other team in the NL.
Hanrahan most recently blew a save Thursday in Cincinnati. He responded with a perfect inning against Kansas City the following day, and then another the day after that.
"We'd love for him to be perfect, but to be perfect at this level, throughout the whole season, it doesn't happen very often. It's a rare thing," catcher Rod Barajas said following Friday's win over the Royals. "We all knew he was going to bounce back. Once we had that two-run lead in the ninth, I guarantee every single person in this clubhouse knew the game was over."
What's the secret?
"We all love Pearl Jam so much," Hanrahan said. "It must be something Grilli did.
"If we could all just go to Pearl Jam concerts together, that'd be it."
|"Everybody wants to win. It's about winning, and we're going to do whatever it takes."|
|-- Jared Hughes|
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.