WSH@PIT: Melancon fans Harper to escape jam in eighth

PITTSBURGH -- A.J. Burnett appeared a lock Friday night to become the first Pirates starter to return to the mound for the eighth inning. Not only had the ace thrown an efficient 96 pitches through seven innings, but he had retired nine of the last 10 hitters he faced, the only interruption an infield single.

But, no, Mark Melancon emerged from the bullpen to pitch the eighth, then handed off to Jason Grilli to finish off the Nationals, 3-1.

So manager Clint Hurdle was asked whether he could see any scenario in which the Bucs could actually have a pitcher go the route, and avoid this being the first in the team's 126-year history to not have a complete game.

"Certainly," Hurdle said. "There could be days when relievers can use the rest, or the score gives you more cushion."

Otherwise, Hurdle can't be blamed for turning it over to the best eighth and ninth inning combo in the Majors. 

Melancon has 11 holds and has allowed one run in 16 innings, during which he has walked zero and struck out 15.

Grilli is perfect in 12 save opportunities and has allowed one run in 13 innings, during which he has struck out 21 and walked four.

Combine their numbers, and this is what you get: a 0.62 ERA, a .156 opponents' average and 36 strikeouts in 29 innings.

The Bucs may not have expected such perfection from Grilli, but they did have the confidence to give him Joel Hanrahan's old job.

Then there is Melancon, who brought a 6.20 ERA from the Red Sox in the deal for Hanrahan.

"The kid's done a very good job," Hurdle said. "He continues to show up and be very, very effective. His cutter has become a very effective pitch, the fastball's got the best life we've seen yet, and the breaking ball is in play."

Morton evaluated after experiencing shoulder tightness

PITTSBURGH -- Charlie Morton popped into the Pirates clubhouse Saturday morning -- a little earlier than expected, but not for the reason expected.

Morton was back in town for a medical examination and evaluation after he left Friday night's rehab start for Triple-A Indianapolis after three innings with shoulder tightness.

He had yet to see a doctor, but the Indians' training staff didn't think it was a serious situation. Nonetheless, plans to have him complete his rehab from Tommy John surgery with one more start and then join the Pirates rotation will have to be adjusted.

"It's a setback for my readiness, sure, assuming it will alter my schedule," said Morton, who "threw up a red flag when my arm felt different than normal" and looped in the Indianapolis staff.

"So they just shut me down. When I went out for the third inning to warm up, it wouldn't get loose. It was a different sensation than I'd experienced dealing with my arm throughout my career."

Morton was flown into town by the Bucs to undergo a thorough examination.

"I'm not expecting anything bad. A lot of it was precautionary, a bump in the road," said Morton, whose stuff and results had been exceptional on his rehab road. Even Friday night, he had held Lehigh Valley hitless for three innings before departing.

He had a 1.69 ERA in four rehab starts, with more strikeouts (10) than hits allowed (seven) in 16 innings.

"When I walked on the field, I felt good, good to go," Morton said. "I looked forward to competing. My arm has been feeling great, and I've been getting good results."

As Morton spoke in the Pirates clubhouse, he was standing in front of the locker of Jose Contreras, who underwent his Tommy John surgery at about the same time and is back in the big leagues. In the visiting clubhouse across PNC Park, Stephen Strasburg, back to his dominant self following the Tommy John procedure in 2011, was getting ready to make the start for Washington.

"Great. Fantastic," Morton said of such encouragement from the successful comebacks of peers.

Worth noting

• Brandon Inge had a hit in every game he'd played with the Pirates -- until his first one in PNC Park. It figured: Friday night's 0-for-2 dropped his lifetime average there to .125. He'd been 4-for-30 while visiting for Interleague games with the Tigers.

• Jose Tabata (left hamstring) was available for pinch-hit duty Saturday, but still was not likely to return to the starting lineup Sunday, when the Pirates will face another left-hander, Gio Gonzalez.

First number, last word

2: Games at second base this season for Indianapolis' regular shortstop, Jordy Mercer, before he joined the Pirates and started at second base Friday night, when his two-run homer was the difference in a 3-1 victory over Washington.

"Got another [start] in four days, so have to get ready for that one. It's nice to be able to put guys away right now, but I might have days when I don't have any, so I've got to enjoy them while I can."
-- Burnett, on strikeouts, of which he has 57, most in the National League and most in Pirates history for a pitcher through 29 games of a season.