PITTSBURGH -- By the first week of September of last season, the Pirates' postseason hopes had unraveled into a double-digit deficit in the National League Central. However, with a record of 74-74 as late as Sept 19, the Bucs still had a shot at that elusive winning record.
Fans, thus, were puzzled as Clint Hurdle planted rookies Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson into his rotation, and for much of September bypassed a couple of veterans (Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens) who did not figure to be part of the team's 2013 picture.
The Bucs went 2-7 in starts by Locke and McPherson, contributing to their 79-83 finish. That situation has been all but forgotten. But it shouldn't be. Locke serves a reminder every time he takes the mound, as he did Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Miami Marlins.
Elbow problems and a subsequent Tommy John operation have kept McPherson from profiting form the experience. But Locke has emerged as a surprising young left-handed ace in one of the Majors' top rotations. And much of his development is owed to that 2012 investment, which was by design.
"That was part of the thought," Hurdle said Tuesday, "to get Jeff's feet on the ground, and get him up and running. We had a young pitcher we thought would develop faster if given more reps. We wanted to give him the ball last year, and I do think that gave him the building blocks for everything he's been able to do this year.
"Organizational decisions are sometimes hard to make, and people on the outside don't get what you're doing. More often than not, if you're a fan of the Pirates, you want results now. Sometimes there's patience involved in building things, and we felt we were best served by giving reps to people who could help build this thing forward."
Melancon bringing calm demeanor to closer's role
PITTSBURGH -- Since Mark Melancon stepped in for injured Jason Grilli as the Pirates' closer, the ends of their games have lost a few decibels. And catcher Russell Martin is getting fewer punches in the gut.
The blond crewcut Melancon is slightly less hyper, fans may have noticed, than Grilli, trailing those long dark locks. Grilli would punctuate saves with punches in the air -- then undercuts into Martin's midsection. Melancon is a handshake guy.
As they say, different strokes for different folks.
"I don't know if personality matters. It's all about getting three outs," said Melancon, four-for-four in save situations since the Bucs lost Grilli to a strained forearm tendon on July 22. "I'm not trying to show anybody up, or make myself look bigger than the team. I'm one to just bulldog, and go after it."
It works, said manager Clint Hurdle. Grilli was an open book. Melancon? Can't judge the book by its cover.
"He's very humble, and very competitive," Hurdle said of Melancon. "He's got that edge, don't let his outward behavior fool you. He's every bit as competitive as Grilli. There are different ways of showing it."
Don't think that Melancon is thoroughly vanilla, without streaks of Neapolitan. After all, he's the guy who inspired the Pittsburgh bullpen's Shark Tank culture.
And while his exit strategy may be docile, not so his entrance. He comes through the gates to "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC -- whose "Hells Bells" for years introduced Trevor Hoffman, who held the career saves record until broken by Mo Rivera, brought on by Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
"Hoffman and Rivera never beat their chests, either," said Hurdle, likening Melancon's personality to those of the two greats. "They came in to pretty good music, but that's where [the extracurriculars] stopped."
Melancon broke into the Majors with the 2009-10 Yankees, sitting in their bullpen alongside Rivera.
"The big thing I got from Mo," Melancon remembered, "was [to] just go do your job, and don't be the spotlight."
Bucs participate in 'Operation Doug' for army sergeant
PITTSBURGH -- Sgt. Doug Vitale, one of the most severely injured members of the U.S. Army's Afghan forces, was a special Tuesday pregame guest as the Pirates participated in "Operation Doug."
Sgt. Vitale and wife Alexis joined Pirates players on the field for pregame batting practice, and later participated in an emotional first-pitch ceremony.
On Sept. 25, 2011, Sgt. Vitale was leading his squad on patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device), losing both legs above the knee and leading to strokes on both sides of his brain. He has since participated in the Polytrauma Rehabilitation program for brain injuries in Tampa Florida.
The Bucs helped raise awareness for Friday's concert at the North Shore Stage AE to raise funds toward the construction of a "smart home" for Sgt. Vitale and his family, in order to enable them to lead a more independent life. Pirates Charities teamed with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation in that initiative.
First number, last word
10-2: Pirates record this season following a scheduled off-day, entering Tuesday night's game, which followed the first of three off-days during the month of August.
"Grilli was like Kid Rock on the mound. Then Melancon comes in, and I'm looking at Clark Gable." -- Hurdle, on the personality conflict between his past and current closers.
• Dave Parker was a major part of the 1979 World Series champion "We Are Family" Pirates, and that extended family expressed concern and well-wishes upon learning the former outfielder, 62, has dealt for 18 months with a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
• Hurdle rated 14 of 16 starts by reigning NL Player of the Week Francisco Liriano as having been "really, really good" and said it will be hard to ignore him in Cy Young Award talks if he continues to pitch well.
"There are so many good experts out there," Hurdle said. "I'm sure they'll pick up on something if he stays hot."
• This ongoing three-game series against Miami will conclude the Pirates' schedule against NL East teams, against which they were 17-14 prior to Tuesday.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.