It was nice to see it happen to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ opponent for once.
No, I’m not talking about the New York Mets’ release of reliever Jose Valverde immediately after he surrendered a late lead in the Pirates’ 5-3 win Monday at Citi Field. The Bucs have cut ties with middling talents many times over the past two decades, but it’s tough to celebrate someone losing his job.
The Valverde situation aside, it was a welcome turnabout for Pittsburgh to see the positive side of a blown save. The Pirates (23-27) still lead the majors with 11 of them, but they authored a late comeback of their own on Memorial Day to improve to 5-1 since an ugly 9-2 home loss to Baltimore last Tuesday.
There’s still much left to do on the Pirates’ current 10-game road trip, but Monday’s win reminds of how many times they’ve let other teams off the hook this season. Take away five of their blown saves – not even half of their season total – and the Bucs are 28-22 and leading the National League wild-card pursuit.
I know what you’re thinking: you can’t erase the past. You’re right, you can’t, but all the squandered opportunities through 50 games do have at least one positive connotation – the Pirates have put themselves in position to win more often than not this year.
Maybe we all got spoiled last season, when seemingly every late-inning advantage was translated into a joyous Jolly Roger raising. As tidy as that felt, that’s not how it usually works. Sometimes the opponent gets the better of a shutdown reliever, as painful as a missed opportunity can be.
That being said, Monday provided an encouraging example of how the Pirates bullpen can get back to its airtight ways of 2013. One day after Vin Mazzaro was designated for assignment, Jared Hughes stepped in and threw a perfect seventh inning. Tony Watson followed up with a quiet eighth, which led to Mark Melancon‘s 10th save of the season after Pittsburgh rallied for five runs in the final two frames.
Hughes and Watson didn’t earn holds for their clean work, but that didn’t make their efforts any less crucial. If they allow the Mets to get a third run, maybe the Pirates come up short. Furthermore, even though Melancon coughed up a leadoff homer, his cut fastball looked as nasty as ever, inspiring confidence that he can at least come close to his video-game numbers from last year.
There’s no guarantee that the Bucs will continue to play close games – and their 14-11 record in one-run battles may regress toward the mean a bit – but their results figure to improve as the season moves along. Better starting pitching, like what Brandon Cumpton provided Monday, would further tip the scales in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Judging by the past few days, maybe the turnaround has already begun.