CIN@PIT: Harrison ties a career high with four hits

PITTSBURGH -- Following a four-hit game on Tuesday night, Josh Harrison's batting average rested at .319 -- fifth best in the National League, right between Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez.

However, you will not find the energetic Harrison among the league leaders, because he does not yet have enough plate appearances for that list. Qualification is based on 3.1 PAs per each team game, and Harrison was still a few dozen shy of becoming official.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sounds committed to making sure Harrison gets there.

"We need to find playing time for Josh. He's playing tremendous baseball, as good as probably he's played on any level," Hurdle said. "I believe in Josh; let's give him an opportunity to do it."

This was a startling concession by Hurdle, given how Harrison got his opportunity a month ago to be an everyday player, and the team's current makeup. Harrison made a May 18 start that fit his bench-player profile: It was the second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees were starting a left-hander, so he spelled Pedro Alvarez at third.

Harrison got two hits that day, including a decisive home run. He has not been out of the lineup since. At first, he played right, pulling the plug on the tepid Travis Snider-Jose Tabata platoon. When Neil Walker was sidelined by an appendectomy, Harrison took over at second.

Now, Gregory Polanco is in right. Walker could be back in a week. Yet Hurdle does not at all sound like someone willing to relegate Harrison to his old bench role.

"You've got to gut out some of the tough times when hits aren't falling -- it's the first time he will get those opportunities as well," Hurdle said.

In other words, wearing a collar won't get Harrison the hook. He's gone hitless in only six of his 26 starts since May 18, and he's batting .330 over the stretch. He's hit .338 since bringing a .208 part-time average into May.

The most obvious way to keep the versatile Harrison on the field will be by having him rotate to spell rested players. Hurdle will have to be creative.

Watson displaying closer makeup in bullpen

WSH@PIT: Watson escapes a bases-loaded threat

PITTSBURGH -- The Bucs' next closer? It could very well be Tony Watson.

Oh, not Wednesday night, nor even this month or this season. Manager Clint Hurdle expressed unfailing confidence in Jason Grilli the day after he'd served up a decisive home run to Todd Frazier.

As the manager pointed out, Grilli did nothing more than cross a closer's slim margin of error.

"He got one pitch in a bad zone that got covered. There isn't a heightened uneasiness for me, by any means," Hurdle said.

So this isn't about current events. But the Pirates are likely to need a new closer next season. At 37, Grilli is in the second of a two-year contract. Most expect the job to fall to Mark Melancon, who has past closing experience and won't turn 30 until Opening Day 2015.

In a subtle way, Hurdle already seems to be stumping for Watson, which would enable him to keep Melancon in his uncanny eighth-inning role (1.19 ERA the 53 times he has worked that inning for the Bucs).

"He's not a left-on-left guy," Hurdle said of Watson, separating him from the prototypical matchup southpaw. "He's aggressive, self-confident, fields his position and controls the running game."

Watson has not allowed an earned run since April 22, a stretch of 22 games spanning two months. He began this season with a career strikeout rate of 7.8 every nine innings, but with his changeup becoming a weapon, he had 41 whiffs in 32 innings entering Wednesday. Watson is holding right-handed hitters to an average of .195.

"He has continued to emerge as one of the reigning relievers," Hurdle said.

Watson is a top candidate for a spot in the National League's All-Star bullpen. Hurdle, one of Mike Matheny's All-Star coaches, will lobby for him.

All-Star voting ends Thursday at PNC Park

PITTSBURGH -- In-ballpark voting for the 2014 All-Star Game wraps up at PNC Park on Thursday afternoon, when the Pirates conclude a brief three-game homestand against the Reds.

It will be the last opportunity for fans to punch out holes in paper ballots for outfielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker, both currently running second at their positions -- although that puts McCutchen in position to start next month's MidSummer Classic at Minnesota's Target Field.

Once the in-ballpark polls close, fans can continue to vote at MLB.com, including all 30 club sites, through July 3.

Worth noting

Gerrit Cole (shoulder fatigue) went through a four-inning, 60-pitch simulated game on Wednesday -- facing Neil Walker and Jose Tabata -- and "was in a good place," according to Hurdle.

"There was some rust, yes, but the velocity showed up, the spin [breaking] pitches seemed to be in play and the changeup was good," Hurdle said. "Most important is, how does he feel [Thursday]?"

Cole becomes eligible to come off the disabled list on Thursday, but there is no rush. The Bucs have set their pitching rotation for the upcoming weekend series against the Cubs in Chicago, and it does not include him: Charlie Morton, Vance Worley, Brandon Cumpton.

Francisco Liriano (strained left oblique) said he is "feeling better" and still planned to play some flat-ground catch on Thursday. It would be his first throwing activity since going on the DL on June 11.

First number, last word

9-8: Pirates' record in games decided in the winner's final at-bat; the losses include the last two games prior to Wednesday -- 3-2 in Miami and 6-5 to Cincinnati.

"I wish we had challenged. I had him, I know I did. But I can understand we didn't want to use up our challenge that early, just in case the call stayed against us."
-- Catcher Russell Martin, on "throwing out" Reds speedster Billy Hamilton on his attempted steal of third in the first inning of Tuesday's game. Hamilton was called safe and Hurdle chose to not challenge the decision.