PITTSBURGH -- Francisco Liriano had a rough time in his latest rehab start, falling well short of the four innings he'd been scheduled to go with Double-A Altoona on Saturday night. The lefty, recovering from his right arm fracture, could make it through only 2 2/3 innings before reaching his limit of 67 pitches.
Manager Clint Hurdle was no more concerned about that outing -- which included four runs on four hits and three walks -- than he'd been impressed by Liriano's previous start, in which he'd pitched three perfect innings for Bradenton.
"I really don't care a whole lot [about results]. He just needs to be on the mound and get over any anxieties," said Hurdle, who thinks the veteran may have been over-amped by nearing the end of the finish line of his rehab. "He did more throwing than pitching. His challenge is to keep in mind the task at hand, not the line two weeks down the road. He probably got caught up a little bit in that."
Even in the Majors, following an outstanding start with a shaky one has been the 29-year-old southpaw's M.O. And Hurdle thinks his outstanding stuff, capable of overwhelming batters, may be partly to blame.
"When a guy has that kind of stuff -- any time out there, he can throw a no-hitter -- his competitive nature can sometimes overwhelm [him]," Hurdle theorized. "He gets caught up in the swing-and-miss, with putting people down instead of just getting them out."
Liriano's rehab assignment figures to include two more starts before the Pirates activate and plug him into their rotation.
Grilli, Melancon forming formidable duo
PITTSBURGH - From Clint Hurdle's Book of Zen:
"People have an idea of who somebody is, and when they do something different, it confuses them."
The Pirates manager said that about the Braves' Kris Medlen, the one-time relief pitcher who has flourished as a starter, but he could have just as well have been talking about Jason Grilli, a first-time closer at the advanced baseball age of 36.
And how is Grilli doing at his new job? On Saturday, he went to 6-for-6 in save situations by striking out the side in the ninth inning of the Bucs' 3-1 win over Atlanta. He took the ball, of course, from Mark Melancon, who has owned the eighth inning throughout this young season.
That duo is fulfilling one of a modern manager's biggest hopes: They have shortened games to seven innings, affording Hurdle to go all-in for a lead going into that frame. Entering Sunday's series finale with Atlanta, the Bucs were 8-0 when leading after seven.
"You try to find ways to get one-up by the seventh," Hurdle said. "They really do affect the strategy."
Remarkably, the Pirates have not missed a beat after breaking up last season's very successful end-game tandem. When Grilli and Joel Hanrahan worked the eighth and ninth innings, they were 34-2. Dealing Hanrahan to Boston -- ironically, for the new setup man, Melancon -- and giving Hanrahan's job to Grilli is panning out.
While Melancon entered play Sunday having retired 24 of the 25 men he had faced in his eight eighth-inning appearances, Grilli had allowed only three hits and fanned 11 in his seven shutout innings.
Hurdle not a fan of increasing K's by hitters
PITTSBURGH -- Today's game is not only different from your father's baseball, it's also different from your older brother's baseball. One of the most dramatic alterations on offense is the spike in, and acceptance of, strikeouts.
Older-school guys like Clint Hurdle still consider the rash of strikeouts "the rock in my shoe."
"That's a part of the game that still electrocutes me," the Pirates manager added, "and I've just got to let it go. We've lowered the bar, with that offensive mindset. Our guys understand my thoughts on that, and what we need to do."
The Hurdle guy with the biggest strikeouts issue is Pedro Alvarez, but Hurdle made a point that might help explain why he is more tolerant of the third baseman's propensity to whiff -- besides, that is, that power that can get plugged in at any time.
"We talk all the time about taking fastballs for third strikes with runners in scoring position. That, I don't get," Hurdle said.
Alvarez again leads the Pirates in strikeouts, with 20 in 52 at-bats entering Sunday's game -- but only three of them have been looking. His manager likes the aggressiveness.
• There was a rare four-minute groundskeeping delay during the second inning of Sunday's game: The batter's boxes had to be re-chalked after plate umpire Paul Nauert noticed a slight irregularity.
• Barring any unexpected glitches, Alvarez could overtake a couple of storied Bucs for fourth place on the club's all-time list of homers by third basemen by the All-Star Game break. Alvarez (52) trails Pie Traynor by three and Bill Madlock is the current No. 4 with 64. Richie Hebner tops the list with 120.
First number, last word
145: The number of pitches, at a minimum, Hurdle wants his hitters to look at every game, claiming studies show that teams that make opposing staffs go through at least 145 pitches win 60 percent of the time.
"That's why we play a hard nine innings, regardless of the situation or the outcome. You've got to keep playing." -- Andrew McCutchen on the late-strike tendencies of the Pirates. who entered Sunday having scored 42 percent of their runs in the sixth inning or later.
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.