Jeff Karstens has been working hard to get back to his 2011 form. After missing two months of the season on the disabled list with a right shoulder injury, Karstens has shown over his last four starts that he’s getting there.
Karstens tossed seven scoreless frames in the Pirates 3-0 shutout over the Florida Marlins. The 29-year-old has pitched at least seven frames in each of his last four starts, while allowing six earned runs over 29.0 innings (1.86 ERA).
“I think he’s getting there,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “He had a glitch in Colorado in the one inning. He’s going to have them. He’s a human being. I know I say that a lot, but he is…His overall command is coming much like we saw last year — command of all his pitches. He’s also got the ability to throw any pitch at any time.”
“I feel like I’m in a good rhythm,” Karstens said. “Trying not to change too much of what I did last year. Just kind of playing wiffle ball out there. I just think to when I was a little kid honestly and try and make them take unorthodox swings, really bad swings. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to blow fastballs by people. I’m trying to just keep them off-balance.”
In his fifth start since coming off the DL, Karstens got off to a rocky start and needed 28 pitches to escape a lengthy first frame. The Marlins didn’t connect for any hard hit balls. The two hits they collected were infield singles. Karstens was able to get Jose Reyes picked off at first base and a fielder’s choice for a second out, but two walks in the frame loaded the bases. After a mound visit with pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Michael McKenry, Karstens settled in and got Gregg Dobbs to fly out to right to end the frame.
“I think it was huge,” Karstens said of escaping the first. “I was making some good pitches and I walked some guys. It’s just one of those things where you just got to keep battling. Our game plan never stayed the same throughout the game. We changed some things. Our sequences changed throughout the day…We have a good relationship and it caries on the field.”
Karstens followed the challenging first with a quick 11 pitch 1-2-3 second inning and settled in and allowed just one hit over his next five scoreless.
Karstens ran into trouble in the seventh inning, but managed to escape it. The right-hander gave up a leadoff single to Logan Morrison, who then swiped second base. After striking out his next batter, Dobbs hit a line drive to left field. Alex Presley made a diving catch and caught the ball just inches above the ground. But after sliding on the snag, the ball rolled out of the glove. The play went for a base hit putting two runners on and one out.
“I did…and then I didn’t,” Presley said on if he thought he made the catch. “I tried to sell it as good as I could…It worked out good for us regardless.”
A huge double play, however, ended the inning. Omar Infante hit a grounder to third base and the Pirates pulled off the twin killing to keep the game within one run.
“Awesome,” Hurdle said of the double play. “One of the biggest pitches of the game. Absolutely.”
“It was actually funny because when they came out to the mound, I said, ‘If they call that ball an out, I’m still in the game. If they call it a hit, I’m probably done.’ When they called it a hit and I looked at Clint and he walked off the mound, I said [to McKenry], ‘I guess it’s me and you.’ We had a plan of attack. Infante is a really tough out. We went with something kind of unorthodox — a fastball. Usually with runners in scoring position you go with your off-speed stuff. We went right after him and hit into a double play and I was pretty excited,” Karstens said.
Overall, Karstens held the Marlins to seven shutout frames with just five hits allowed. Karstens walked two and struck out three while throwing 92 pitches, 62 strikes.
“He found his rhythm after the first inning,” Hurdle said. “The first inning he pitched, the seventh inning he pitched were the two challenges he had to face out there today and he was able to navigate his way through both of them. In-between, it was efficient, it was quick. A very good change of speeds…When Jeff is on, he reads swings well. He keeps the ball down, works quick, keeps his fielders in play and that’s what we saw today.”
The Pirates swept the Marlins — their fourth sweep of the season — and improved to a season-high 14 over .500. In front of a 30,000-plus crowd on Sunday afternoon, Karstens said the support from Pittsburgh has been special this season.
“A lot of these guys weren’t here when I was here in ’08 and we lost 99 games, the next year 100,” Karstens said. “So to come out here and see the crowds that we’re getting, it definitely means a lot to me and this clubhouse. We’re battling for the city of Pittsburgh. It’s what we want to do.”
Presley Being More Patient at the Plate
Alex Presley has shown some better plate patience recently since returning to Pittsburgh after suffering a concussion. The outfielder went 1-for-4 on the day — the lone hit was a lead off single in the bottom of the first.
Presley has drawn a pair of walks in his two prior games, and the Pirates are 21-4 on the season when he gets on base and scores. The 27-year-old said he’s had a little bit of a different approach at the plate recently.
“I’ve been better at two-strike pitches I think,” Presley said. “Taking closer pitches and things like that have helped me get deeper into counts to where I get a chance to walk and get on base. It’s definitely a focus of mine.”
With Andrew McCutchen at the plate and one out in the first, Presley swiped his ninth bag of the season. It marked his first stolen base since June 30th. McCutchen drove Presley in with an RBI single into center field to plate the first run of the game.
“I just need to be on base to steal,” Presley said of being more aggressive on the base paths. “That’s the main thing. A lot of pitchers have been quick to the plate lately. They’ve been tough to steal on. I got an opportunity today.”
Alvarez Continues Tear in the Day
Pedro Alvarez has absolutely raked in the day this season. He entered game action hitting .301 (28-for-93) with 13 home runs and 30 RBI in 28 day games this year, going 18-for-47 (.383) with four doubles, eight home runs and 23 RBI in his last 14.
The trend continued on Sunday afternoon. After connecting for a single in his first at-bat, Alvarez flew out to deep center field in his second at-bat. But he made sure that was the last out he’d make at the plate on the day.
Alvarez stepped to the plate in the seventh frame with Casey McGehee on base and absolutely crushed an 0-1 curve for a two-run shot — No. 21 on the season. Alvarez has four long balls in his last six games.
“Pedro couldn’t hit a ball any harder than that on the breaking ball that he was able to hit and drilled it into the seats,” Hurdle said.
“The run producing bat, in this organization, I mean, it’s big. As he continues to grow I think you’ll see more consistency. There’s still going to be some peaks and some valleys because that comes with a big swing guy, a big high risk, high reward type player. But I know he demands a lot of himself and expects to hit for a high average and I do think he expects to strikeout less. That will play itself in time with experience as well.
Mercer Flashes Glove and Bat In Fourth Major League Start
Jordy Mercer was inserted into the lineup on Sunday to make his fourth big league start. The infielder took advantage of the playing time and went 1-for-3 on the day and flashed his great arm and range while playing shortstop for the Pirates.
Mercer’s knock came in the second frame. With two-outs, the 25-year-old ripped a double down into left field for his third extra-base hit in his last three at-bats. Mercer ripped a triple in Friday night’s win over Florida. He also picked up a double on Wednesday in Colorado.
“We played him last Sunday in Milwaukee as well,” Hurdle said. “I want to keep [Clint] Barmes rested. There’s a lot of things to like about Jordy, playing on the success he’s had the last two nights. But Barmes needs time. I want Barmes and [Rod] Barajas to get rested, to make sure they get ample rest so they can stay strong. Those are two guys that I’ve identified as key contributors defensively that we need to keep in play.”
“Jordy’s time has been mostly working and now, trying to find more playing time for him. When he put the barrel on a couple balls like that, that’s good for everybody. It gets my attention, it gets the other teams attention and obviously gets his attention because it’s a lot more fun running the bases.”