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Changing roles was relief to Hughes, Bucs

Right-hander earned call to Pittsburgh after getting aggressive in 'pen
February 25, 2015

Entering his 10th professional season, Jared Hughes has gained a reputation as an friendly face in clubhouses from Williamsport to Lynchburg, from Altoona to Pittsburgh. But on the mound, Hughes found an aggressiveness that put him on the road to the big leagues and quietly turned him into one of the Pirates' most reliable relievers.

"Learning. Building off of failure and learning if I do something wrong one time, how to go out there the next time and do it right," Hughes said of the key lesson he learned during a Minor League career that spanned parts of nine seasons. "I think that was the biggest part of being in the Minor Leagues, improving as a player to where when you get to the Major Leagues, you've got a pretty solid base and a lot of experience to go off of."

A fourth-round pick of the Pirates in 2006, Hughes climbed steadily through Pittsburgh's system in his first three years, reaching Double-A Altoona in 2008 while working exclusively as a starter. His first few seasons of pro ball did not come without frustrations -- such as walking 31 while striking out 25 in his first 10 South Atlantic League appearances -- but Hughes learned quickly that his response to struggles would define his career.

"You ask any guy who's spent a while in the Minor Leagues. I'm 29, there are so many guys who have so much more experience than me, I sit back in awe of them. Any time you continue to stay healthy, play another season, rack up this experience, you can always look back on it and say, 'Wow, that helps me to know that I've been through a lot and that I have what it takes to overcome tough situations,'" Hughes said. "Through my Minor League career, there were plenty of tough situations that I've overcome. I feel like that experience is something good to draw from when times are tough."

That experience came at number of stops in Hughes' early seasons -- Class A Short Season Williamsport and Class A Hickory in his first two professional campaigns. Class A Advanced Lynchburg, Double-A Altoona and the Arizona Fall League followed in 2008, bringing Hughes to a setting that would become his breakthrough moment.

Jared Hughes graduated from Altoona in 2011, earning a spot in Pittsburgh's bullpen later that year. (Carl Kline/

The right-hander became well acquainted with the railroad town of Altoona in Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains, just 100 miles from PNC Park in Pittsburgh. After reaching the Eastern League for six games in 2008, Hughes made 17 appearances -- including seven starts -- in Double-A in 2009 and repeated the level the following season.

The call to the bullpen

On July 25, 2010, a transformation began in Hughes' career when the Stamford, Connecticut, native entered a game from the bullpen for just the second time that season. After pitching five scoreless innings and earning a victory over Trenton, Hughes began to embrace the notion of pitching in a relief role. He made six of his final 10 appearances as a reliever that year, going 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA out of the bullpen compared with a 9-8, 4.70 line as a starter.

"I never really believed that there was a ceiling," Hughes said of his Minor League evolution. "I always believed that I was going to be able to continue improving as long as I worked hard and kept an attitude that I wanted to listen to my coaches and keep learning from my failures."

In addition to his individual growth, Hughes found those around him were a support system during the inevitable rough patches of a Minor League career.

"There's the camaraderie amongst your teammates," he said. "Going through tougher times together with some of the guys, we're now in the Major Leagues together. It makes the team closer now because a lot of guys, we've been together for a long time. We've been through tough times together. Now we're all succeeding together."

The Curve rolled to the Eastern League crown in 2010 with Hughes serving as a key piece of Altoona's bullpen mix. Hughes pitched masterfully in the playoffs, allowing just one hit over 8 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out nine while walking three and posting a 4.33 groundout-to-flyout ratio. The impact of his strong finish to the season went beyond just finding a niche.

"That year in 2010 with Altoona, if you look at that team, there's a lot of guys who are in the big leagues or have been in the big leagues or are going to be in the big leagues," he said. "That was quite the team. I was on teams that weren't very good also in the Minor Leagues, especially in the lower levels. But having a team that really went out there and won was great. It allowed me and allowed the rest of the guys to know this winning thing is what we really want here.

"I know they don't necessarily say to win at all costs in the Minor Leagues, but to be able to go out there and win really gave you a taste of what you really want to do at the Major League level, which is win a World Series. Now you have a lot of guys who were on that 2010 team -- me, Tony Watson, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, those guys are everywhere -- we love that the feeling of winning and want to go out there and do it at the Major League level."

Back in Altoona for a fourth tour in 2011, Hughes bookended 11 starts with a pair of relief appearances and went 3-4 with a 4.09 ERA before earning his first call to Triple-A, where he erupted onto the scene as a reliever.

Tom Filer, Hughes' pitching coach in Altoona in 2010, also was there to welcome him to Indianapolis a year later. Filer recalled a conversation with Hughes and Indians manager Dean Treanor upon the righty's International League arrival in 2011.

"We said, 'We want you to put the ball on the ground. Do whatever it takes to put the ball on the ground,'" Filer said. "From that point on, he was awesome. He was so good. It seemed like from that point on, he was a different guy. His focus was so acute, and the action on his ball was accentuated."

Taking flight

Hughes flourished in Indianapolis beginning on June 10, going 3-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 35 relief appearances. In addition to striking out 45 batters in 42 2/3 innings, he answered his coaches' call, garnering 4.07 ground-ball outs for every out in the air.

"When I got put back in [the bullpen] in 2011, I just decided I was going to pitch with more intensity, sprint out to the mound, be really, really aggressive. I think that was really the turning point in my Minor League career," Hughes said. "When I went from being a starter to a reliever, I no longer had to pace myself. I went out there, and every single pitch I threw was going to be everything I had.

"My mentality changed, and it made it easier for me to go deeper and longer periods of time throwing because I was so aggressive in the strike zone. Instead of as a starter having to break up five innings in 100 pitches, as a reliever with an aggressive mentality, I could go out and throw three innings and throw 28 pitches. It was interesting to see how it worked."

The change in Hughes' in-game personality was inspired, in part, by one of the more unsung supporters every player has on his road to the big leagues.

"I had a catcher in Triple-A, Double-A, high-A, low-A, he was at every level with me. We got drafted the same year together. His name is Kris Watts," Hughes said. "Kris doesn't play anymore, but he was a guy who caught me at every level and knew me better than anybody. He kind of just said, 'Hey, listen. You're such a big guy (6-foot-7 and 245 pounds), now that you're in the bullpen, you've got to go out there and give it your all.' I listened to Kris and did it, and that was kind of the turning point."

The Pirates took notice of Hughes' blistering 2011 finish, and in early September, his long-awaited call came. After 175 Minor League games, the Long Beach State product was headed to "The Show." The promotion came against sizable odds. In 2013, the Altoona Mirror noted Hughes was just the third former Curve player to have spent four years in Double-A and still received a call to the Majors.

"For us, it's a great feeling to watch a player get it," said Filer, now the Pirates' assistant pitching coordinator. "It takes his game to another level. It's hard to explain. It's like you're encouraging, encouraging, and all of a sudden when it comes out, you're like, 'Oh wow, there he goes.'"

In four Major League seasons, Hughes has gone 11-11 with a 2.95 ERA, and his 2014 campaign was his finest. After starting the year in Triple-A, the 29-year-old appeared in 63 games for the Bucs beginning in late April, posting a 7-5 record and a 1.96 ERA. One of the host of homegrown prospects who have rescued the Pirates from their previous two decades of ignominy, Hughes makes his player development staff especially proud.

"He is a tremendous young man," Filer said. "We've kind of seen him grow up in front of us to what he is today, and it's a good thing. It's great to see a guy take it to another level and yet remain the same guy. He's a quality human being."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.