March 09, 2017

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) From the moment Tony Watson first stepped onto a big league mound for a regular-season game, he's felt the trust and faith of his manager.

A couple of poor outings late last season aren't going to change that.

Midway through his first spring training as Pittsburgh's closer, Watson reflected back on his major league debut between early-morning workouts in the Pirates' spring clubhouse.

''Of course, I remember it; I remember it very well,'' the left-hander said Thursday. ''And not just because it was my first game - everybody remembers that - but because it was a big situation and it helped the team out.''

''It felt good to have the skipper's faith right away. And ever since then, any time (Clint Hurdle) picks up that phone and calls down and says `Get Watty going,' I tell him I try to be dependable and durable for him every year and every time.''

Then a largely unheralded, 26-year-old former 23rd-round pick, Watson was anything but eased into the majors by Hurdle upon his initial recall in July of 2011.

The first time Hurdle called on him? It was in the eighth inning of a tie game against Arizona, with two on and none out. Oh, and the Diamondbacks' cleanup hitter (Chris Young) was up - a right-handed hitter, no less.

''Maybe (Hurdle) just didn't have anyone else,'' Watson quipped.

Perhaps, but Hurdle's intuition proved correct when Watson struck out Young and followed it up by also getting Juan Miranda swinging to end the threat.

It was the first of many fires that Watson would put out for Hurdle. And after five seasons of climbing the proverbial depth chart when it comes to roles in what has typically been a strong Pittsburgh bullpen through that span, Watson finally was given the closer's role Aug. 1 after the trade of Mark Melancon.

Now the oldest and longest-tenured-in-the-majors Pirates' reliever who's assured to make the team, Watson has become the group's unquestioned leader.

''The bullpen runs through him,'' lefty Felipe Rivero said of Watson, now 31. ''He's like the boss in this bullpen. Everything that he says, we've got to pay attention and always execute it, because he's `The Guy' in the bullpen. The closer is the owner of the bullpen for us.''

Watson assumed ownership after Melancon and his soon-to-be-expiring contract was sent to Washington for Rivero and a prospect at last season's trade deadline. It was a well-deserved promotion, too: Watson had gone a combined 14-3 with a 1.76 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over a team-high 155 appearances in 2014 and 2015.

An NL All-Star in 2014, Watson was widely recognized as one of the NL's best setup men.

''He always had the ability to command all his pitches,'' fellow reliever Jared Hughes said. ''So when his (fastball velocity) went up, all of a sudden it was like, `Oh yeah, this guy is a stud.'

''He's had closer's stuff for some time now.''

But Watson's first foray into actually performing closer's duties did not go as smoothly as his eighth-inning work had. In 26 games after taking over as closer last season, Watson allowed six home runs.

He hadn't allowed that many throughout an entire season since his rookie 2011 season. He'd allowed eight home runs in 152 2-3 innings over 2014-15.

The 10 homers Watson allowed overall in 2016 resulted in his worst home run rate since 2011; he also posted his worst WHIP and walk rates since 2012.

''Every pitcher goes through tough times over the course of a season or, for him, once every, what, three years?'' Hughes said. ''(But) no one bounces back better than Tony. He's such a consistent guy, the same guy everyday no matter what happened yesterday - good or bad.''

Watson's shaky late-season 2016 statistics are dragged down by one dreadful evening when the Cardinals hit three homers off him in the ninth inning of a Sept. 6 loss. Taking that away, Watson converted 15 of his other 17 save opportunities after the Melancon trade, including the very next night against the Cardinals.

''Being in that high-leverage reliever role, that's what you've got to do, what you've got to embrace,'' Watson said. ''Sometimes, it's not going to go well. You've got to go home and get some sleep and get ready because the skipper's going to call on you the next night - if you're lucky. And I am with him. So I'll go out there and get it done for the guys.''

You May Like