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Bullpen was backbone for 2013 Pirates

December 21, 2013 - Matthew Peaslee
Call them the pitchers formerly known as the Shark Tank.

The dastardly Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen ranked among the best in baseball and made matters a lot easier in tight, late-game situations.

For the 2014 season, the Pirates return many of the cast of characters from last year's bullpen which combined for a 2.89 ERA (third in MLB) and tossed 545 innings (fourth in MLB). Plus, there's some solid young arms rising through the minors.

There may be a re-branding, though. Mark Melancon, the founder of the 2013 "Shark Tank," has been off exploring the world this offseason.

"That guy travels a lot," said Pirates relief pitcher Jared Hughes.

On a trip to New Zealand last year, Melancon and his wife, Mary, went diving with sharks. It was there, in the Pacific Ocean, where he met a new Mark who served as his alter ego - and a mascot for the Bucs.

Move over Pirate Parrot.

"He named one of the sharks over there 'Mark the Shark,'" Hughes said. "It was early in the year and the bullpen was intense - like a shark tank. So it just stuck."

Soon enough an actual shark tank was placed in the Pittsburgh locker room, shirts were produced with the moniker as Jeanmar Gomez, Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Melancon, Hughes and closer Jason Grilli bonded to form the most reliable facet of the playoff-bound Pirates.

"The bullpen was fabulous," said Pirates broadcatser Steve Blass. "I don't know if we can even hope to see anything better than that. If we can come close to what we had in the bullpen, we'll be in good shape. We had six inning games. When you can get down to that point you have something good going."

This offseason, the Melancon's traveled to South Africa. They did some missionary work and ran instructional clinics, teaching local youths the game of baseball. Of course, Mark made another new friend. This one had four legs, a striped coat and could easily out-run Andrew McCutchen in a 40-yard dash. Mark and Mary were photographed with a cheetah. The picture has been floating around the internet for a few weeks and brings up a new idea.

Is the Shark Tank now the Jungle?

"We'll see about that," Hughes said with a laugh.

One of the newest players joining the Bucco safari is Miles Mikolas. Acquired from the San Diego Padres with outfielder Jaff Decker, the Florida native sported a 2.97 ERA in 34 innings pitched at Triple-A Tuscon. Late in the year, he made appearances in the Padres bullpen and will likely find a spot on the Pirates' Opening Day roster.

"He throws hard," Decker said of Mikolas, who has been his roommate for the past few seasons. "He hit 100 mph a couple of times. Miles is a good guy to have around. He's a real good teammate."

Mikolas is a nice addition to an already established staff of pitchers. Filtrating through the system are more quality arms, like Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, Nick Kingham, Kyle McPherson, Tyler Glasnow and Zack Dodson, to name a few. And, there's still Jameson Taillon waiting in the wings.

Having this depth is important, as was shown in last season's starting rotation.

"Early on our starting rotation was in disarray," Blass said. "A.J. (Burnett) got hurt, James McDonald didn't do anything, we didn't have (Francisco) Liriano yet.

Not to mention the failed experiment of Jonathon Sanchez and the miscues of Mike Zagurski and Jose Contreas.

"But they held it together," Blass said. "One of those reasons was the bullpen."

The next man up approach was needed in 2013 and the consistency will still be there in 2014. General Manager Neal Huntington has had a proven knack for building a dependable bullpen. He recently picked up Elvin Ramirez, a former New York Mets pitcher, and Daniel Schlereth, who pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers.

Already established as a top unit, there's chances for more guys to shine in this year's Pirates bullpen. They certainly have the right guys to feed off the energy.

"You look at Melancon and Grilli and they're two of the most competitive guys who lay it on the line night after night and they're pitching their tails off," Hughes said. "You can see it in their faces and through a Grilli fist pump or Melancon's swag out out there rocking back and forth. It's really impressive and I think that was a key to our success."

Whether they want to bite or growl, the bullpen will certainly be beastly again next year.


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