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Do you want the good news or the bad news?

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NEW  YORK –  I can’t see a show of hands so I’ll start with the bad news. The bullpen. Ugh. Ten blown saves in 40 games? That’s incredible in an undesirable way. The Pirates blew 15 saves in 162 games last year.

More than anything, more than the inconsistent offense, more than the lacking starting pitching at times, the bullpen regression explains why the Pirates are six games before .500. Consider if the Pirates had a league average save conversion rate they would be 21-19 heading into New Yankee Stadium. (Hey, at least the Pirates miss Masahiro Tanaka this weekend).

What’s particularly interesting about the end-game epidemic is, as we discussed earlier in the week, the underlying skills of the Pirates’ bullpen members are pretty strong. I mean, Mark Melancon entered Thursday with a 0.47 walks per nine innings rate. He walked two in the ninth en route to the blown save. If you look at the skills stats, the indicators, Melancon profiles as pretty much the same guy  he was a year ago.

But he’s blown two saves in seven save chances. It seems an awful lot of balls are leaking through the right side of the infield in key situations. Right-handed hitters adjusting to the cutter? What was somewhat fascinating to me was with runners on first and second and no one out in the ninth inning, the Pirates briefly shifted Jordy Mercer nearly all the way to the right of second base, seemingly trying to combat right-handed hitters’ approach of taking Melancon to right field. That’s creative shifting.

Look, Justin Wilson’s stuff is as nasty as ever. Hurdle said Wilson had the best stuff of his career Thursday. That cutter is beginning to become an interesting weapon.

Tony Watson has doubled his strikeout rate.

We mentioned Melancon’s  numbers are roughly the same …

So is this all just bad luck? A small sample size or random variance? I think it’s mostly that. Opponents have simply been hitting them where they ain’t more often this year. But I also wonder if there is a psychological component to all this. Maybe pitching the ninth inning really isn’t for everyone.

Melancon  has filled in for Grilli often since last July of last season. He has 21 saves but he also has seven blown saves.

And we don’t what Grilli will bring when activated.

Bottom line, the Pirates need their relievers to start performing up to their underlying indicators. I think they well, but they can’t afford any stretch like this.

The good news? There was some in Miller Park.

I think there’s a chance the Milwaukee series, in an odd way, might have represented something of a turning point in an important area: starting pitching.

On Tuesday, we saw Gerrit Cole for the first time as major leaguer throw a changeup that had significant fading action and velocity separation. He perplexed left-handed hitters Logan Schafer and Lyle Overbay with the pitch. Last season it was the curveball that gave Cole velocity separation and strikeouts. Cole needs a third pitch to truly become a No. 1 ace caliber pitcher. The changeup would go a long way towards that. The pitch should not be viewed as a afterthought. It should be viewed as a power, strikeout pitch as it is for many aces in the game.

On Wednesday, against an entirely right-handed Brewers lineup, Francisco Liriano looked more like the 2013 Francisco Liriano. His wipeout offspeed pitches were set up by fastball command. His velocity has been increasing in recent starts and his fastball is now average 92.0. He induced 20 swings and misses in 87 pitches. That’s dominant stuff.

And on Thursday, Wandy Rodriguez surprised me by showing he still had something left in the tank. His fastball velocity returned to 2013 levels, sitting 89-90 and maxing out at 91. His command was better as was, Hurdle thought, the plane on his fastball was better. Sustainable? We’ll see. But it was important Rodriguez showed he still had 2013 stuff.

The Pirates need more from their stating staff. They need Liriano and Cole to be impact guys and for Rodriguez to be a quality mid-rotation option.

Perhaps they became that again in Milwaukee. Perhaps if they can stop the end-game bleeding they  can begin to make up ground in the second quarter of the season.

-TS

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