PITTSBURGH -- In discussing Phil Irwin's virtues and why the Bucs had chosen him to rise from Indianapolis to make his Major League debut in Sunday's start against the Reds, manager Clint Hurdle stressed his ability to throw to both sides of the plate.
What Hurdle really meant? Irwin's ability to throw inside.
Any pitcher can throw outside, the keep-away and thus safe part of the plate. But pitching inside, where you unease hitters, but also where mistakes wind up in the seats, is the challenge. And it is something the Pirates staff has emphasized to pitchers since the start of Spring Training.
"They've let guys know we have to go in, to tell the batters they can't be comfortable over the plate," A.J. Burnett said. "That's how guys get comfortable -- when you stay outside all day long. We're not trying to hurt people, just staying in with conviction. And that's a big difference."
The aggressive pitching philosophy was vividly apparent in Wandy Rodriguez's first start of the season: In pitching 6 2/3 innings of a 3-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs, he plunked two batters, compared to the three he hit through all of last season in 205 2/3 innings.
Entering Sunday's game, Pirates pitchers have held opponents to an average of .216 through 11 games, third-best in the National League.
"Our persistence in pitching inside has been paying dividends," Hurdle said. "It's been relentless all season long, and it's something we want to keep doing, even when we're not getting strikes. When you're feeling that ball in, as a hitter, it just isn't quite as comfortable."
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.