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Bullpen Sparkles Early for the Pittsburgh Pirates

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COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off a weekend series in which they swept division rival Cincinnati with a mix of stellar pitching and timely offense. The team now sits with an even 6-6 record through four series this season thanks mostly to pitching, although the offense has come around lately, striking for 10 runs in a two inning span Sunday against the Reds.

But perhaps the most solid aspect of the team thus far is the part that rarely gets recognized unless it messes up in the late innings. The Pirates sported one of the best bullpens in baseball last season, a trend that's carried over into the early portion of this season despite the departure of key pieces of the puzzle.

It's a good thing the bullpen is performing so admirably: Pirates' starters have only pitched into the seventh inning twice in 12 games while averaging only five innings pitched per starter. But that doesn't mean all that work for the bullpen is producing poor results.

The seven-man bullpen currently has the seventh lowest rank in the majors with a sparkling 2.36 earned run average. Four of the seven relievers on the team currently have an ERA under 1.30 while every pitcher in the pen has more strikeouts than walks accept Jeanmar Gomez, who has one K to two walks.

The relievers have surrendered 27 hits in 42 innings pitched so far, which ranks seventh best in the majors. It's only given up 11 out of the 47 runs scored against the team this year and is holding opponents to a .186 batting average, good for third best in the league.

Individual statistics for the bullpen show even better numbers.

Closer Jason Grilli and reliever Justin Wilson have given up no runs in a combined 11 2/3 innings pitched so far, while setup man Mark Melancon has eight strikeouts and no walks in eight innings pitched while holding batters to a .111 average. Grilli has been perfect so far in converting all five of his save chances.

The pen's overall numbers would be a lot better were it not for recently-departed pitcher Chris Leroux. The team cut him last week after he gave up three runs over four innings, good for a 6.75 ERA. In comes minor leaguer Bryan Morris to fill the spot, a pitcher who only gave up one run in five innings last year during a late-season stint in the big leagues.

Morris looks to fit in seamlessly to a bullpen already clicking on all cylinders. He's spent seven seasons in the minors, appearing in 159 games with a 3.68 ERA. There's something to be said about that kind of experience, but fans will have to wait and see if it translates into major league success.

The Pirates continue April 15 with a three-game set against the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by a four-game stint against baseball's best team in the Atlanta Braves. If the team wants to continue in its winning ways, the bullpen is going to have to continue bridging the gap between sometimes-shaky starting pitching and the ninth inning.

Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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