Pittsburgh Pirates: Quarter Season Rewind

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ season has been very rocky thus far, and there’s a lot to talk about.

After the Pirates’ got swept this weekend at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, they have not yet won a series and they are 3-13 overall. Normally, 16 games into the season looks like nothing at all, but in this COVID-shortened season, that accounts for over 25% of the 60 games that are scheduled.

Then came the news this week about the St. Louis Cardinals. After the whole Marlins COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of the season, the Cardinals decided to also go out to a club and got caught, to no surprise. St. Louis hasn’t played since July 29th, and they’ve only played 5 games. If you didn’t know, the Pirates were supposed to be the next team up on the schedule for the Cardinals. So while we wait for the Pirates to resume on Thursday in Cincinnati, I’ll recap what we’ve watched so far series by series, as well as some key storylines.

Opening Weekend at Cardinals (July 24-26)

This was the beginning of a new era for the Pirates with a new regime in place. Opening Day also marked the return of the Twitter trolls. While there were some people who were optimistic, many were not. Anyways, the Pirates got strong starts from Joe Musgrove and Mitch Keller, and Trevor Williams continued his struggles from 2019, allowing 3 runs in 3.2 innings. Unfortunately, Musgrove was facing Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, resulting in a 5-4 loss. Adam Wainwright held the Pirates to 3 hits and 1 run in a game the Pirates would lose 9-1. In the third game of the series, Mitch Keller allowed 2 hits and a run over 5 innings in a 5-1 win, the first win for the Pirates. Clay Holmes pitched an inning and a third scoreless, and Michael Feliz and Nick Burdi also had scoreless outings. Richard Rodriguez gave up a home run and Kyle Crick continued his struggles, with four runs given up.

On the offensive side, Colin Moran was 4-11 with a home run. Phillip Evans continued to impress while going 3-7 and Jose Osuna also hit well, going 3-8. Osuna also had 4 RBIs in the series. Outside of this, the Pirates offense was mostly dormant and there isn’t really much else to talk about. The most surprising thing was that Bryan Reynolds, who hit .314 in 2019, did not get a hit. So that meant that the Pirates were 1-2 heading into their first home series against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Vs Milwaukee Brewers (July 27-29)

First, I’d like to mention that out of all of the Pirates’ series so far, this one might have been the most enjoyable to watch. It didn’t really matter who won or who lost, but it was good baseball if you like hitting, and bad if you like good bullpen pitching. The first game was the Pirates’ turn to blow it, when Michael Feliz gave up 4 after a promising first appearance and then Kyle Crick gave up a double to Ryan Braun to tie the game. The Pirates would eventually lose 6-5 thanks to the 2020 extra innings rule. I guess the Brewers felt badly because they returned the favor the following night, when they allowed the Pirates to score four in the bottom of the 7th, partially thanks to a massive throwing error by first baseman, Justin Smoak. Then Adam Frazier hit a two-run homerun in the next inning to give the Pirates the lead that would eventually lead to an 8-6 win. Brandon Woodruff and the Milwaukee bullpen pitched a one-hit 3-0 shutout in the final game of the series, and that gave the Pirates their second series loss of the season. In game one, we got our first look at the piggyback and it did not disappoint. Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl combined for 5.2 scoreless innings. This was Kuhl’s first appearance since June 26, 2018. Richard Rodriguez also bounced back with a clean inning and a strikeout. Geoff (not Jeff) Hartlieb got his first MLB win in this series, pitching two scoreless innings in game 2, the same game that Nick Burdi got his first MLB save. 

As far as hitting went, Colin Moran hit two home runs and knocked in three. Cole Tucker got a start and went 2 for 4 and Reynolds finally seemed to have broken out of a slump, also going 2 for 4 in the middle game of the series. Phillip Evans continued his unexpected season, going 2 for 6 with an RBI. Evans and Moran were basically the offense in the first two series, besides a few key hits by Guillermo Heredia and Jarrod Dyson and of course Adam Frazier. The Pirates were now 2-4, and they were going on the road to Chicago and Minnesota.

At Chicago Cubs (July 31-August 2)

After the exciting Brewers series, this Chicago Cubs series was almost the exact opposite. The Pirates scored 7 runs in this series, and 6 of them were scored in the 8th and 9th innings. Craig Kimbrel allowed 2 runs in game 1, and then Kyle Ryan allowed three in the 9th inning of the next game. Trevor Williams started his second game of the season, where he continued his struggles from his first start, walking three and giving up four hits over 4.2 innings. He gave up 2 earned runs as well in a 6-3 Cubs win. Mitch Keller got the second game of the series, going 2.2 innings and giving up 2 runs. He actually injured his oblique in this start and has been out ever since. The Pirates ended up losing 4-3 after a late hitting surge. The Pirates tried the piggyback thing again and after Steven Brault started the game off by going 3 perfect innings, Derek Shelton brought in Chad Kuhl. After a perfect fourth, Kuhl gave up consecutive doubles and then left due to an injury later in the inning. It turned out to be basically a hangnail, so it was almost the best-case scenario. The Pirates would eventually lose in their second 11 inning game, 2-1. Hartlieb continued his early success, pitching an inning and a third scoreless. Chris Stratton also had 1.1 innings of very good pitching. Dovydas Neverauskas, who has been pitching batting practice to the opposition the past few seasons, pitched two scoreless innings in this series. JT Brubaker, who pitched two scoreless against the Cards, pitched three innings, once again, without giving up a run. He also recorded 3 strikeouts. The biggest surprise about the pitching in this series had to have been Sam Howard. Howard, who had just been called up from Altoona, struck out three over two innings, including the 10th inning with the new automatic runner on second rule. 

Like I said, the runs really only came in the final two innings of each game, but there were some good individual performances from the batters. Colin Moran hit another two home runs, bringing his season total to 5 through the first 9 games. Josh Bell also hit his first homer of the season, which was a good sign considering he had been slumping to that point. Bryan Reynolds also added another two-hit game, and he went 2-8 in the series. Kevin Newman was overlooked in this series, as he hit a home run and went 4-12 in the series. Once again, Moran seemed to be the only consistent bat in the Pirates’ lineup. The Pirates were heading to Minnesota after being swept, now with a 2-7 record.

At Twins (August 3-4) and Vs Twins (August 4-5)

Heading into this series, there was little to no optimism because the Twins had just come off of a year where they hit over 300 home runs and absolutely dominated every team, especially the weak ones. Surprisingly, there ended up being some pretty close games in this home-and-home series. Derek Holland got his second start, and he gave up four runs in 5.2 innings. It wasn’t as bad as his final stat line showed, as all of those runs were scored in the 6th. The Twins walked it off against Nick Burdi in the bottom of the 9th, and the Pirates lost 5-4. Joe Musgrove did not have a good start in the second game, giving up five runs over three and a third innings. The final score of that one was 7-3. When the teams went to Pittsburgh, Trevor Williams reverted to his 2018 self, pitching 7 innings of one-run ball. The Pirates still took the loss, 5-2. In the final game of the series, JT Brubaker gave up 3 runs in 3 innings, and then the Pirates came back in the 9th to win it 6-5. Richard Rodriguez pitched yet another scoreless inning. Chris Stratton pitched three scoreless innings across two appearances in the series and Yacksel Rios had a game where he threw two impressive innings where he only gave up one hit. 

The Pirates definitely had better hitting in this series, and their best hitter was Phillip Evans, who went 5-13. Erik Gonzalez really had a breakthrough series, going 5-11 with two doubles. In the third game of the series, Josh Bell went 3-4 with a double and a home run. Outside of that, Kevin Newman had a big hit to win the final game of the series and Colin Moran had a two hit game mixed in as well. Add in a Gregory Polanco home run and that’s most of the production on offense. The Pirates were 3-10 and heading into their final series before the one-quarter mark against the lowly Detroit Tigers.

Vs Detroit Tigers (August 7-9)

Before this series started, I was sure this would be the Pirates’ first series win of the season, potentially a sweep. Last year, Detroit lost 114 games and they didn’t really make any changes. In the first game of the series, no pitchers were safe as the game went 11 innings and the Tigers won 17-13. In the second game, Derek Holland gave up 4 home runs on the first ten pitches, and 9 runs overall. The Tigers took that game as well 11-5. In the final game of the series, Steven Brault and Chris Stratton covered the first five innings, only giving up 1 run. Detroit’s starter, Spencer Turnbull, went 7 innings, and also only allowing one run. A Richard Rodriguez wild pitch, which was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, led to the winning run being scored in the 8th. The final score of that one was 2-1. So, after the Pirates got swept, there were some good hitters on the team. Erik Gonzalez continued his absolute dominance at the plate, hitting a 463 foot home run and going 6-13 with 7 RBIs, six of them coming in the first game. Phillip Evans was 3-7 in the series before a bad collision with Gregory Polanco ended his season. Bryan Reynolds also played solid, going 3-12 in the series. Kevin Newman hit pretty well, going 6-16 with a four hit game. 

There was a lot of rough pitching in these games, but there were some bright spots. Geoff Hartlieb had two scoreless appearances, as did Nik Turley (he did have one run unearned). Yacksel Rios had a perfect inning where he struck out two. Outside of the one run, Richard Rodriguez still had 5 strikeouts in 3 innings. Other than that, a lot of Pirates (and Tigers) pitchers got very touched up. 

So like I mentioned in the beginning, the Pirates are dead last in the MLB at 3-13. There are some key storylines and some players who are performing well, so I’m going to give a quick few thoughts.

Lineups– I know Gary has talked about this before, but since he wrote his article, the Pirates have still not had the same lineup twice. Not once in 16 games this far have the Pirates thrown out the same lineup twice. Whether or not Shelton is trying people out in different spots or whatever the reason may be, it’s still a bit strange that not once have we seen the same lineup twice.

Pitching Injuries– The Pirates have now lost 7 pitchers to the injured list, although Keone Kela is expected to be activated before the Cincinnati series. When you lose many of your top rotation and bullpen options, it’s hard to not only compete, but evaluate for the future, which is what the organization is trying to do.

Breakout Hitters– Erik Gonzalez is one that sticks out to me. If you don’t remember, he hit .322 in September of last season, and it seems like some of that is carrying over to this season, where he’s hitting .333 and making very hard contact. It’s sad what happened to Phillip Evans, because he was hitting .359 in 11 games. After slow starts, Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds are now hitting well, with Newman hitting .375 in August and Reynolds hitting .276 this month.

Breakout Pitchers– JT Brubaker has been a pleasant surprise this season, with a 3.38 ERA through his first 3 games. Chris Stratton has also been good, as he has a 2.89 ERA in 7 appearances. Sam Howard and Geoff Hartlieb, who have not been great in the past, have 1.80 and 2.45 ERAs respectively this season. And lastly, Chad Kuhl, who hadn’t pitched since 2018, has a 2.00 ERA his first 3 games, including a start.

For the Pirates in the 75% of the season remaining, it’s not about how many games they win or lose, it’s about the performances of those who might be centerpieces for this team moving forward. As fans, we’re ultimately along for the ride, no matter how bumpy it gets at times. We’ll just have to wait to see how things play out in the three-quarters of the season we still have left.

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