Trio gives Hurdle many ways to spell relief

Trio gives Hurdle many ways to spell relief

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Bucs appear ready to cash in the insurance they had taken out on the back end of their bullpen, as Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz were policies on Evan Meek's full recovery from tendinitis in his right shoulder.

Meek has spent Spring Training steadily gaining strength in his arm, zip on his fastball, break on his cutter -- and the renewed confidence of manager Clint Hurdle.

Does regaining the hold on the eighth-inning padlock Meek had in 2010 go with all that? Not automatically, particularly not early in the season, when Grilli could get the responsibility of handing the ball to closer Joel Hanrahan. And also deep in the mix is Cruz, who was confirmed on Thursday by general manager Neal Huntington to have made the club.

Hurdle has begun to see signs of the 2010 Meek he had only heard about, the one who owned the seventh and eighth innings and received All-Star recognition for it.

"Evan has worked hard," Hurdle said. "He bought into the plan [pitching coach] Ray [Searage] had in place, and wants to do whatever he can to get himself back to where he was in 2010. That's the long-range [plan] -- but he's already way better than what we saw at any point last year."

And Grilli and Cruz have been even better than that.

A 36-year-old right-hander who finally has two good legs to stand on -- after sitting out all of 2010 following surgery on his right knee -- Grilli may, in fact, have pitched himself into the eighth-inning setup role Meek had hoped to regain. Pitching regularly about every third day, Grilli has been scored upon only once in seven appearances, and has allowed five hits in eight innings.

How far has the jovial Grilli come? A year ago he was an Iron Pig (with Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia's Triple-A team). One day after the Phillies released him, Huntington signed him, and the night after that he was on the mound at PNC Park.

Cruz has come back even farther, considering he arrived in camp without security, as a non-roster candidate. Excellence as the Bucs' spring workhorse bought him some. He has appeared in nine games, including a two-inning stint, and has allowed two runs and six hits.

Though Huntington confirmed that Cruz has made the team, the move can't become official until room is made for him on the 40-man roster, which does not have to happen -- and may not -- until the eve of the regular season.

This is a pretty good place for the Pirates to find themselves: Grilli had come on last season while Meek was on the disabled list, Cruz was invited to be on hand in case Grilli's 2011 debut (2.48 ERA in 28 games) became a mirage and the beginning of Meek's spring (five runs in his first 1 2/3 innings) only validated those moves.

So now the trio has made 24 appearances, pitched 27 2/3 innings -- and allowed 19 hits and struck out 21.

If Hurdle has decided who will be his go-to guy in the eighth, he isn't saying.

"It could be a situation where we won't need a primary eighth-inning guy," said Hurdle, meaning matchups could rule. "We're having those conversations inside now, and we've identified a couple of guys we like. As we tighten things up, I'll probably be able to share more with you.

"There will be a guy I go to the first time in the eighth inning, and maybe he'll get called the primary guy."

Primary, as in first? Clearly. Primary, as in foremost? Not necessarily.

Meek is still gaining on a couple of things Hurdle already digs about Grilli and Cruz: their savvy and their cool. The nerves of both have been dulled by experience.

"We're also starting to see a guy with mound presence," Hurdle said of Meek. "He's more confident out there.

"At times his velocity has been way better than last year [91-93 mph]. But the biggest thing is not the velocity but the finish to his pitches. I talked with [catcher] Rod [Barajas] after his outing Wednesday, and he saw another step forward in his speed and movement. I saw Evan throw some breaking balls that had the Rays taking some funny swings."

Meek's return to '10 status would be a testament to his own dedication and to Searage's management.

Grilli and Cruz are owed to Huntington's memory, and to his patience. The GM recalled being an avid pursuer of Grilli on the free-agent market of 2009-10, when he instead signed with the Indians. When Grilli again became available, Huntington wasted no time knocking on his door again, mindful that his disabling injury had not been to his arm. And this winter Huntington simply waited out Cruz, who had run into a cool market despite coming off a solid season with Tampa Bay (5-0, 3.88 in 56 games).

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.