MILWAUKEE -- With Jason Grilli still working his way back from injury, every Pittsburgh reliever has seen an increase in high-leverage opportunities. Quietly, left-hander Tony Watson has maintained his place as one of the best in the middle-relief business.
Entering the week, Watson was 3-0 with seven holds, near the top of the league leaderboard in the latter category, and had posted a 1.59 ERA over 17 innings in 2014. Though that amounted to a small sample, Watson's 23 strikeouts and 1.70 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio were much higher than career norms. He owns a career 0.9 GO/FO ratio and has punched out 8.2 batters per nine innings over his career, with a 12.2 mark in that department this time.
"I didn't switch anything up from previous years," Watson said. "It's just, 'Get ahead, stay ahead and try to put them away.' Russ [Martin] was calling great games [before going on the disabled list], having me throwing the slider down more and the changeup. Chris [Stewart] and Tony [Sanchez] are doing the same thing. I think it's just trusting in the pitch and trying to execute pitches. I'm not trying to strike guys out, just trying to get weak contact when I'm ahead of the count, and I'm fortunate to get some swings and misses."
Moreover, he's seeing more and more right-handers. He's never been a situational lefty, but Watson faced lefties in just less than half of his total batters faced two years ago, a volume that dropped to 39.5 percent last year and down to 25.7 percent this season.
"Last night, [fellow lefty Justin] Wilson he came in for the lefty, but Clint [Hurdle, manager] has a lot of trust in us to go out there and get full innings and get both righties and lefties out," Watson said. "I think we've both shown we're capable of doing that. Hopefully, that trust is still there and we can keep going out there and getting outs."
Watson hasn't been scored upon in seven appearances, covering 7 2/3 frames heading into Wednesday.
Mercer among Pirates heating up in May
MILWAUKEE -- The Pirates struggled mightily to get a hit with runners in scoring position Tuesday, with Gaby Sanchez's eighth-inning double the lone strike in nine opportunities, but that doesn't mean the Pirates were short on offense.
Several players continued to enjoy May revivals, including Jordy Mercer, who reached base three times and has now delivered eight hits in 15 at-bats over the past four games. His batting average remains at .216 entering Wednesday, but it has elevated 55 points since May 2, and his OPS has upgraded more than 200 points.
"It's just the rhythm of the game; he's a good hitter," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after Tuesday's game. "He stayed consistent with his work and never brought his bat out to the field. He's just getting better rhythm, more confidence with every game out there.
"The league punched back early, and it took him maybe a little bit longer to figure out the different attack zones they were going to, but he's had pitches to hit throughout the season. The confidence is at a season-high for him right now and he's barreling balls that he might have been fouling off earlier."
Mercer hit .285 with a .772 OPS in 2013 during the Pirates' run to the postseason. He agreed that he hasn't done anything dramatic to bounce back.
"I moved my hands a little bit; I think it's the same swing, just a little bit shorter now," Mercer said. "But I've just been staying the course, not doing much of anything different, and things are starting to turn for me.
"When other guys start hitting, it kind of carries over to other players, too."
That's been evident. Ike Davis struggled Tuesday but came into the series riding a five-game hitting streak, going 10-for-18 in that span with two walks. Jose Tabata, who had three hits Tuesday, has seen his numbers trend gradually upward since mid-April, and Josh Harrison's two-hit night Tuesday gave him five multi-hit games in the month of May.
Harrison has raised his average from .217 at the end of April to .294 entering Wednesday.
"I'm staying within myself," Harrison said after Tuesday's game. "I haven't done anything different, just preparing like I usually do and getting a good pitch."
Good results reported from Grilli's simulated game
MILWAUKEE -- Reliever Jason Grilli threw a simulated game Wednesday at Miller Park and came away with good results as he works his way back from the oblique strain that has kept him out since April 21.
"He had a good day," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He threw two innings, 12 pitches and 12 pitches. He threw all his pitches and felt very good afterwards. I have yet to talk to Ray [Searage, pitching coach] and Neal [Huntington, general manager] to see what the next step would be, so I have no information to follow what we're going to do next, other than he had a very good day today."
Thursday looked like a deadline day for the Pirates to make a decision about whether to place outfielder Starling Marte on the disabled list with the back ailment that held him out of a third straight start Wednesday. The Pirates were, after all, in need of a roster spot to activate starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez off the disabled list so he could make the following afternoon start at Miller Park.
By the eighth inning Wednesday night, it appeared Pittsburgh had an answer. Marte appeared in the team's contest with Milwaukee as a pinch-hitter, striking out against Will Smith, but showing he was ready to get back on the field. Marte took batting practice for the first time since the back flared up over the weekend earlier in the day.
"There will come a point in time where we have to make a decision," Hurdle said before the game. "I've always had a date in my mind that we've kept in play, how many days you can carry [an injured] player before you need to take the next step. We're not at that point yet. Today can be a good day if he goes out and swings."
Catcher Russell Martin, on the DL since April 26 with a hamstring strain, took batting practice Wednesday but still has no timetable for return.
"He had another good day today … hit live pitching," Hurdle said of Martin. "He took BP so I think we're in a good place with him. He's feeling as good as he ever has. We have to put the catching component into it, squatting, catching. Swinging at breaking balls today helped because there's some torque involved there, and we continue to challenge him a little bit more every day. He feels good, there's just a little more to be done."
Hurdle said he did not know if Martin or Grilli would be sent on rehab assignments.
• The Brewers announced before Wednesday's game that outfielder Carlos Gomez had dropped his appeal of a three-game suspension stemming from the benches-clearing incident April 20 in Pittsburgh. He will miss the final two games of the series with the Pirates.
Gomez spoke to MLB officials Friday and was still awaiting word heading into the week on a ruling when he left Tuesday's game with lower back tightness. Elian Herrera started in center field Wednesday.
• Pirates super prospect Gregory Polanco had a huge day Tuesday for Triple-A Indianapolis, going 4-for-4 with a double, triple, three RBIs and two runs scored. For the year, he's batting .373 with an OPS of 1.054.
JR Radcliffe is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.