PITTSBURGH -- Mike Zagurski has been through this many times, and he's better off because of it.
The 30-year-old reliever has 83 career appearances, but missed all of 2008 due to elbow surgery and was in the Minors in 2009 after spending a few months in the Phillies' bullpen in 2007. He made 45 appearances for the Diamondbacks last season, and spent the first third of this season with Triple-A Indianapolis after signing with the Pirates this winter.
But now, Zagurski is back in the Majors and said he's done a better job of keeping his big league aspirations away from his Minor League duties on the mound. Focusing on the task at hand has been key.
"That's something I struggled with earlier in my career. But all you can do is get the guys out in front of you," Zagurski said. "If I get caught up with being up here, or getting sent down, all it does is kind of cloud you. It makes it that much harder."
Zagurski threw 21 innings for Indianapolis this season, allowing just five runs, 15 hits and nine walks while striking out 37. At the end of Spring Training, he said one of the improvements manager Clint Hurdle and Pirates management needed to see from him was better command. Hurdle saw enough to bring up Zagurski and option Bryan Morris to Triple-A last weekend, although he was recalled when Jose Contreras went on the 15-day disabled list.
"[Zagurski's] fastball command has improved a little bit, his fastball velocity has improved a little bit, and he has more depth to his slider," Hurdle said. "Those are the three areas where there's been improvement."
Zagurski tossed a scoreless sixth inning in a 6-5 loss to the Tigers on Monday. The lefty is glad to be back in the big leagues, but he's focused on getting outs and adding stability to an already reliable bullpen, not his immediate future.
"[The bullpen has] been very good as a whole and more than exceptional at the end of games," Zagurski said. "So I can hopefully help bridge the gap to get to the big boys at the end. If it's for one out, for two innings, or if I have to make a start, I'm going to do whatever I can to help contribute, and we'll see where it takes us."
Shark-infested clubhouse: 'Pen installs aquatic tank
PITTSBURGH -- It always seems to come back to sharks.
The Pirates' bullpen -- one of baseball's best -- has dubbed itself the "Shark Tank." They "look for the smell of blood and go in for the kill," closer Jason Grilli said.
Grilli also described the short-term memory relievers need in a way sharks would understand. "You either sink or swim," he said.
Now, there's an aquatic fixture in the Pirates' clubhouse to represent the theme of its bullpen and its mission: An actual shark tank.
"I didn't know if I had to pay to look at it. I asked, but there was no admission," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle joked. "… But they've identified with it, they've embraced it, we'll roll with it."
Grilli said he started to look into what kind of sharks can be kept as pets without "putting guys on the DL and losing a finger or an arm." He wound up with a 150-gallon tank -- complete with several Pirates figurines, a ship and a skull -- to house a black-and-white-dotted Coral Cat shark, a yellow-striped Banded Cat shark, and a puffer fish, so far. Several more "predatory creatures," as Grilli described them, are on the way.
The tank was donated and customized by Gary Knabe, a Pirates season-ticket holder who owns Elmer's Aquarium and Pet Center in Monroeville, Pa.
"You put some live crab, shrimp, or octopus in there and they go nuts," Grilli said excitedly.
Hurdle is accepting of any nickname, practical joke or large aquatic tank in his clubhouse as long as he sees results from the players behind it. He's gotten what he wants from his bullpen so far this year.
Heading into Wednesday's game, Grilli has 21 saves in as many tries, setup man Mark Melancon has allowed just three runs and two walks in 28 innings, and the relievers as a unit are first in the league in batting average against (.212) and tied for the top spot in ERA (2.74).
Will it last? Grilli thinks so, but admits there will be bumps along the way. It's just a matter of whether a reliever who sunk yesterday will swim today.
"We'll go through a little bit of drama, but that's what relievers love the most," Grilli said. "If you don't love it, then you haven't been in the bullpen long enough."
Hurdle urges team to appreciate accomplishments
PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle doesn't read much into standings and outside praise.
The MLB season is a grind, and the Pirates manager knows that. It's a day-by-day process, laid brick by brick, and it hopefully all ends in some success. One streak, favorable or not, doesn't change that long journey.
But if a team doesn't take the time to appreciate its accomplishments, Hurdle said it will get caught in a "head down, go hard" mode and never look up to enjoy the fruits of its labor, which is never good.
"I do believe that you need to take time and honor what you're doing," Hurdle said. "It may be a short period of time, but I do think you need to enjoy the ride."
While Hurdle may not pay attention to records and outside praise or disapproval, he said it's important for players to see their successes as they try to turn around a franchise that has been marred by losing for the last two decades.
For the first time since late in 1992, the Pirates finished above .500 on three straight road trips. It's not an earth-shattering mark that will end all the club's misfortunes, but it does mean something to Hurdle.
"Those kinds of things need to happen for us to get to where we need to go," Hurdle said.
• Charlie Morton will make his final rehab start Sunday, when Indianapolis takes on Columbus. He will throw 80 pitches, and "it will be about execution," Hurdle said.
• The Pirates rank last in the Majors in batting average with runners in scoring position (.214). The Cardinals are first at .333, and the Reds are ninth at .279. The teams are within three games of each other atop the NL Central.
• With a win in any of their next three games, the Pirates will have 18 victories in May, their most in a calendar month since September 1992.
• Shortstop John McDonald (lower back strain) is 0-for-7 in two rehab starts with Indianapolis.
First number, last word
15 -- The Pirates won at least 15 games in each of the first two months of the season for the first time in franchise history.
"If I had to pick a guy to plant in the lineup to hit third right now, for one game to win it all, I'd pick [Andrew] McCutchen. And I'd put [Detroit's Miguel] Cabrera fourth." -- Hurdle, who paused for several seconds between each phrase. He was asked if Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball today.
Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.