PITTSBURGH -- Storylines in the Bucs bullpen are breaking out like wild flowers in a field after a rainstorm. That will happen when you've got the National League's stingiest -- 2.34 ERA into Saturday night's game -- relief corps.

There's Jason Grilli, blowing people away like a Kerry Wood/Nolan Ryan mash-up. There are Juan Cruz and Brad Lincoln, who allow about a run for every new moon. And Tony Watson, around whom inherited runners are like statues.

So it's easy to overlook someone like Jared Hughes, the rookie right-hander who has worked to a 1.16 ERA in 17 games under a variety of circumstances.

Not bad for a 26-year-old who "came into camp with an outside chance," said manager Clint Hurdle, recalling the early days of Spring Training.

"All he did was continue taking the ball and get outs all Spring Training. And he's continued at this level, in a bunch of different roles," Hurdle said.

Hughes' mound presence probably caught Hurdle's attention before his mound repertoire did. The 6-foot-7, 245 pounder is a stone-faced, eyes-boring competitor with the stuff to match.

The chance to get over the first-time jitters last season, when Hughes was a September callup, helped him get settled in this spring.

"You don't really know how to tackle it until you get here. Then you tell yourself, 'You know what? It's the same game, the same field.' The player pool is better and the stadiums are bigger, but otherwise let's just go play," Hurdle said. "He prepares extremely hard, and has been very focused. And he loves to compete."

Hughes' competitiveness figures to come out next weekend, when the Pirates make their first visit to Milwaukee. Hughes' career line is impressive enough -- an ERA of 2.10 for his first 29 appearances. But taking out his mistreatment by the Brewers in his final two 2011 appearances (four runs in one inning) leaves a 1.08 ERA for the other 27 games.

Alvarez shows he can be a complete player

PITTSBURGH -- The harsh jury that remains out on Pedro Alvarez is not seeing his forest because of the trees. In his case, the trees are home runs, planted when as a 23-year-old rookie he had back-to-back multi-homer days in his 29th and 30th games in the Majors.

That's become a tough calling card to live up to. People are impatient, and they continue to harp on his ongoing offensive struggles, particularly since moving in as the Pirates' cleanup hitter.

Fans hung up on waiting for Alvarez the slugger are missing out on Alvarez the baseball player. The kid again showed off his other dimensions in the Bucs' 1-0 win over the Cubs on Friday. In many ways, it was his win.

Alvarez scored the only run, on Rod Barajas' second-inning single, with hustle and an instinctive fadeaway headlong slide. Three innings later, he protected that lead with his latest defensive gem.

The Cubs had men on second and third with two outs and A.J. Burnett was on the ropes, when Joe Mather ripped a smash to the left of Alvarez and behind him. He gloved it, jumped upright and nailed him at first with a clothesline throw.

It drew the immediate appreciation of a pointing and nodding Burnett, and later the kudos of manager Clint Hurdle.

"That was a great play by a third baseman. Saved us two runs," Hurdle said. "He's made a number of those this year. He's made some errors [nine] because of a lack of focus, but he's also laid out and made those kind of plays. Pedro has worked as hard as any third baseman I've ever played with or coached."

"I try to be ready every time I'm on defense and anticipate the ball being hit to me. I take a lot of pride in my defense," said Alvarez, who when apprised of his manager's praise nodded and added, "That's something no one can take away from me."

Worth noting

• Jeff Karstens' rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis on Saturday night was to go four innings or 60 pitches, but he was so clean through four (facing the minimum 12 batters) that he returned to the mound for the fifth at Louisville and got only one more out while allowing five runs, three earned. Karstens made 59 pitches, walking two and fanning two.

• The 3-2 walk-off win improved the Bucs' record on Saturdays to 7-1, including six consecutive wins.

• Josh Harrison drew a walk and laid down a sacrifice bunt, but otherwise went 0-for-3 to end his 10-game hitting streak, which had been tied for the NL's longest active streak.

• This probably is not on Nate McLouth's bucket list, but the ex-Pirates outfielder is casting about for his next team as the leader among "active" players for most games played without ever stepping on artificial turf: 765; the gem is from the Elias Sports Bureau.

Last word

"It's World Cup soccer, more than anything else." -- Manager Clint Hurdle, after Friday's 1-0 victory over the Cubs, the eighth time this season the Pirates and the opposition combined for three runs or less.