Like he does before most home games, at some point before Tuesday's one-game, wild-card playoff against the Cincinnati Reds, one of the most indispensable members of the Pittsburgh Pirates will walk from his downtown apartment, cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge and arrive at PNC Park.
And no one will notice him.
Of course, he isn't MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. Or slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez. He's not A.J. Burnett or Francisco Liriano, the anchors of the Pirates' starting rotation, either.
But he's been called “that guy for us” by McCutchen in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He's been called “the glue” by pitching coach Ray Searage. The Pirates wouldn't have gotten where they are without him, reliever Mark Melancon has said. Third-base coach Nick Leyva called him an unsung hero.
That guy is left-hander Tony Watson, the former Husker who has quietly become one of baseball's most effective relievers.
“It's kind of fun being in with the crowd,” Watson said of his walks to the park, which come several hours before game time, before much of the game-related foot traffic. “Some of the other guys in my building don't walk because they get recognized. … I kind of see the same people every day.”
Pirates fans have gotten used to seeing Watson on the mound — he appeared in 67 games as a member of the Pirates' “Shark Tank” bullpen that has helped put the team in the playoffs for the first time since 1992 — and they like what they've seen.
He went 3-1 with a 2.39 ERA, striking out 54 while allowing 51 hits and 12 walks in 71 2⁄3 innings.
Watson ranked fourth among all pitchers with 70 innings or more by limiting opponents to a .229 average on balls put in play (BABIP). He was fifth in that same group with a WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) of 0.88. And he ranked 10th with 1.51 walks per nine innings, 11th in walk percentage (4.3) and 11th by allowing an opponent batting average of .195.
“I don't really like to look at statistics right now,” Watson said. “There are individual statistics, but it's a team-based game. I'll be able to look at those in November and December and let it soak in what kind of season I've had. But right now it's so much fun to celebrate as a team.”
Pittsburgh — and its playoff-starved fans — has been doing plenty of celebrating this season, as the playoff drought also coincided with a streak of losing seasons that set a dubious North American professional sports record. Furthermore, the Pirates went through late-season collapses each of the past two years, when the sub-.500 seasons mark and possibly the playoff drought were on the verge of ending.
“Pittsburgh is such a huge sports city, with the Steelers and the Penguins — and the fans have been waiting for a long time for the Pirates to be good again,” Watson said. “It's really taken off, and our crowds have been rowdy. We have great, passionate fans.”
Pittsburgh earned the right to host the one-game playoff with the Reds by sweeping them in Cincinnati in the final regular-season series of the year.
“It feels like we're always playing them and it's always heated,” Watson said. “The rivalry has picked up the last few years. We know them, and they know us.”
A handful of Pirates, with playoff experience from other teams, have told Watson that there is a different feeling around October baseball.
“I'd like to think the game is going to be the same, but the veteran guys say that the crowd gets there earlier and everyone is in their seats before the national anthem,” Watson said. “And then they are into it from the first pitch on. Every pitch matters, every out matters — you have to be locked in for every pitch. That's not easy to do, but it makes it exciting.”
Watson's role as the glue of the Pirates' staff stems from manager Clint Hurdle's ability to call on him in any situation. Need to get a tough left-hander out? They hit just .206 against Watson, who has an excellent slider. In a tough situation that requires facing right-handers, too? Watson's change-up, ranked the second best in baseball by fangraphs.com, helps him hold righties to a .192 average.
Need Watson for a longer outing? Watson has eight outings of two innings or more and 10 others where he's recorded four or five outs. Need him to close a game? He's got two saves — All-Star Jason Grilli (33) and Melancon (16) have given the Pirates a baseball rarity, two pitchers with 15 saves or more.
“I think being effective against right-handers just comes from my starting days,” Watson said. “My change-up has taken off a bit this year — (catcher) Russ Martin has a lot of trust in it, and he's gotten me to get a lot of trust in it. And my slider has gotten better since I got (to the majors), and Ray Searage has helped me out on that.”
Watson, born in Sioux City and raised in Dallas Center, Iowa, was 22-7 with a 3.32 ERA at Nebraska from 2005 through 2007, when his fastball was in the upper 80s. Now his average fastball is 93.6 mph, according to fangraphs, and yes, he said, he did top out at 97.
“I don't take that into account too much,” he said. “We were down in Texas, so it was the Texas heat and maybe a hot radar gun.”
Watson's velocity has gradually increased, and he admits there's a bit of an adrenaline boost coming out of the bullpen that helps add to any pitcher's velocity. Grilli, Melancon, Justin Wilson and former Omaha pitcher Vin Mazzaro have been the central figures in the Shark Tank, featured earlier this season in Sports Illustrated.
“It's been awesome down there,” Watson said. “We've had some injuries (Grilli missed much of the second half), but then it's just been the next man up who just fills in whatever role. It doesn't matter the situation, Clint can pick up the phone and whoever is ready and the freshest does the job.”
The Pirates were 11-8 against Cincinnati during the season. A win would move them into the best-of-five National League Division Series against St. Louis, starting Thursday. The Cardinals won the Central Division, with the Pirates second and the Reds third, but Pittsburgh won the season series with St. Louis 10-9.
“This is what we've been going for since I joined the organization in 2007,” said Watson, 28, a ninth-round draft pick six years ago. “And hopefully (making the playoffs) is just a steppingstone to where we ultimately want to be, in the World Series. Having a winning season and making the playoffs we're just knocking down barriers.”
If they make the World Series, maybe Watson will have to start taking a cab to work.