PITTSBURGH -- At some point in the bottom of the third inning of Thursday night's game against the Brewers, the Pirates officially hit the quarter-pole of the 2013 season.
Prior to the start of the contest, manager Clint Hurdle talked glowingly of the team's 40-game performance. But if Hurdle was pleased, most outside of the clubhouse were downright amazed by the Pirates' 23-17 record against generally elite competition despite numerous setbacks.
Told in advance that Andrew McCutchen would be hitting .260, Neil Walker would spend two weeks on the disabled list, James McDonald would be generally ineffective before also landing on the DL, Pedro Alvarez would be back under .200 and critical '12 reliever Jared Hughes would be back at Triple-A Indianapolis, few would have given the Bucs much chance of being in line to post winning records in both April and May for the first time since 1991.
"A large number of people might've been freaked out," Hurdle said. "But I'm weird that way. I would've said, 'It's a challenge -- to get production out of other people.'"
Production from some of those non-marquee guys has been a significant source of satisfaction for Hurdle.
"I like the rotation now. The depth has never been better. I love the work the bullpen is doing," he said. "Offensively, our lineup's never been deeper, and we've still got some guys capable of doing more. Defensively, we're catching the ball. We're playing 27 outs. We're running the bases much more effectively.
"I like the direction we're headed, the effort and the attitude."
Bucs' bullpen living up to 'Shark Tank' nickname
PITTSBURGH -- Opponents have something to fear in the Pirates' bullpen, and its nickname seems to fit the bill.
Setup man Mark Melancon dubbed the team's group of relievers the "Shark Tank" on Twitter earlier this season, and it has been as deadly as its moniker.
The 28-year-old, well-traveled righty came up with the name while diving with great white sharks in southern New Zealand -- an item on the pitcher and his wife's bucket list. A younger shark hadn't been named yet, so a diver they were with said, "Why don't we just name it after you?"
And the pitcher brought the idea back to Pittsburgh and his cohorts, as a two-ton shark named "Melancon" swims halfway across the world.
"I'm good with whatever they like," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the nickname. "They seem to like the name, and they've kind of bought into that mentality. So I'm good with it."
Entering Thursday's game, Pirates relievers have a 2.89 ERA, the fifth-best in baseball, and opponents are hitting just .215 against them, good for second in the Majors.
Melancon and closer Jason Grilli have been a nearly perfect one-two punch to close out games. Melancon has a 0.43 ERA to go along with 22 strikeouts, one walk and 14 holds in 21 innings, while Grilli is an unscathed 16-for-16 in save opportunities.
"I feel a lot of confidence in the bullpen," said starter Wandy Rodriguez through interpreter and bullpen catcher Heberto Andrade. He tossed seven strong innings Wednesday night before turning the ball over to the Pirates' eighth-ninth inning duo, which sealed the win with a pair of 1-2-3 innings.
"They've been doing a tremendous job," said Rodriguez.
Melancon, who the Pirates acquired from the Red Sox when they sent closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston this offseason, said he and many of the other relievers take the same approach a closer would, seeing their responsibility as a single inning. And if each is effective in his duty, the torch gets passed right down the line.
"As a reliever, you always tend to try to take that as your approach," Melancon said. "It's our job."
Hurdle hails Martin's tremendous defensive play
PITTSBURGH -- A relatively mundane, inconsequential and totally overlooked play in the Pirates' 3-1 Wednesday night victory over the Brewers was hailed by multiple team veterans as one of the best they had ever witnessed.
With the Pirates leading 2-1 and one out in the top of the eighth, a filthy two-strike curveball from Mark Melancon befuddled both the Brewers' Jean Segura, who swung hopelessly through it, and catcher Russell Martin, as the ball bounced off his right shinguard and traveled 20 feet to his left. Segura, representing the tying run, took off for first base.
Martin leapt out of his crouch, pounced after the ball, picked it up, spun and blindly threw toward first base with such force that he wound up face-planting in the grass.
The throw was spot on to Gaby Sanchez to retire Segura.
"As good a play as I've ever seen a catcher make," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Martin's play is out of this world. That's a fantastic play. To throw a fast runner out on a ball that travels and had distance that he had to go get. And he slipped and still got enough on the throw to make that play. Awesome."
"That was one of most athletic plays I've ever seen. As far as blocking the pitch, getting up, recovering the ball and getting a guy who runs very well. That's a lot better than I was at catcher, I can tell you that," said Neil Walker, who was drafted as a catcher and broke into pro ball playing the position.
First number, last word
5-2: The Pirates' record during a recent stretch with both second baseman Neil Walker and catcher Russell Martin out with injuries. Last season, without Walker in the lineup, the Bucs were 15-22.
"We had winter on Monday and summer on Wednesday."
-- Jim Trdinich, Pirates director of baseball communications, on the temperature moving from 32 degrees Monday morning to 84 degrees for first pitch two nights later.
• By collecting a trio of doubles against San Diego on Wednesday at the age of 20 years and 313 days, the Orioles' Manny Machado became the youngest to turn the feat since Roberto Clemente did it on May 29, 1955, at the age of 20 years and 284 days.
• The reports Hurdle received on Charlie Morton's comeback rehab start Thursday with Altoona credited him with "a good outing," as he threw 61 pitches in four innings. Sidetracked by shoulder discomfort from his original rehab from Tommy John surgery, Morton is scheduled for three more rehab starts, the next on Tuesday with Indianapolis.
• Grilli, who had worked in three of the previous four games, was given the night off and wasn't available out of the bullpen on Thursday night.
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. Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.