PITTSBURGH -- Eight days ago, the Pirates promised to be flexible with their bullpen. They would use their relievers to win games, manager Clint Hurdle said, not count saves. Their ninth-inning meltdown in Friday's 9-5 loss to the Cubs did not change their thinking.
The Pirates used left-hander Felipe Rivero to lock down a pair of four-out saves following former closer Tony Watson's demotion, and a five-out save in Saturday's 4-3 win over the Cubs. Hurdle deployed Rivero to start the eighth inning Friday, facing the lefty-laden top of the lineup. Rivero would have faced at least one batter in the ninth if Addison Russell had not run up his pitch count to 20.
So Rivero could not return in the ninth, and Juan Nicasio -- who had given up one earned run in his previous 23 appearances -- quickly allowed the tying run to score and loaded the bases without recording an out. The Cubs pulled away by tacking on three more hits and two runs against Watson.
The Pirates are going to stick to the plan, using Rivero in the game's highest-leverage situation, even if it takes place before the ninth inning.
"So the fact we didn't have success with it one time, we should kick it to the curb?" Hurdle asked. "There's going to be reaction when you get scored upon late. Would it be the same reaction if they scored upon Juan in the eighth? You commit to what you're going to commit to. You make the moves you believe in."
"I think we need to be cognizant of using our skilled relievers to the best of our abilities. ... We'd still like to use Felipe in what we believe at the time is the most meaningful part of the game. The hard part is you don't know what's behind that. Nobody does."
Nicasio's blown save was Pittsburgh's third in a 10-game stretch. The first two, back-to-back in Baltimore, led the Pirates to pull Watson out of the ninth inning. But they won't relegate Rivero to a fixed, one-inning role because their current approach didn't work out Friday.
"In the perfect world, in everybody's mindset, you want to have a closer," Hurdle said. "That might be the place where we get. We are trying to do what we feel is best at the time."
With Nicasio unavailable Saturday due to what Hurdle called "fatigue," the Pirates turned to Daniel Hudson for one out in the eighth. Hurdle wanted more than one out from Hudson, but when Ian Happ doubled, putting the tying run in scoring position, it was time for Rivero. The lefty responded by stranding Happ and recording five outs on 17 pitches for his third save.
"He's been great. Feel like I've answered that before. It's been a lot of fun, man," Andrew McCutchen said of Rivero. "Slow heartbeat. No heartbeat at all, actually."
Lost in the bullpen blowup Friday night: Josh Bell played all nine innings at first base. Earlier this season, the rookie was frequently removed for defensive purposes when the Pirates had a late-game lead. But as the Bucs carried a one-run lead into the ninth Friday, Bell remained in the game. He played the entirety of the Pirates' win over the Cubs on Saturday, too.
It is not simply a matter of personnel, Hurdle said, though it's worth noting John Jaso and Jose Osuna -- two of Bell's most frequent replacements -- are now the top two bats off the bench. Bell has earned the right to play a full game at first base in the Pirates' eyes.
"We've pushed him out there," Hurdle said. "We've taken those training wheels off and pushed him out there."
Now in his third full season as a first baseman, Bell has recorded three Defensive Runs Saved. Hurdle said there was no single moment that led the Bucs to leave him in late. Rather, it was a culmination of Bell's work and input from infield coach Joey Cora.
"I do think there comes a point in time where a player also would like to play a full game," Hurdle said. "I think it helps his mindset moving forward as well."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.