It’s starting to become a familiar sight this Spring to see a Pirates pitcher picking off a runner at first. On Thursday, James McDonald started the game by allowing a single, then erased the runner with a pickoff to first. Today, A.J. Burnett started the game the same way. Darin Mastroianni started the game with a single, but was immediately picked off by Burnett at first.
“I know they’re going to run on Burnett. I know it,” Burnett said in the third-person after the game. “So any little thing I can do to get better, to help this team get better, I’m all in. And I’ve shown twice so far that it does help.”
The Pirates were allowing runners to run at-will last year, but have been placing a bigger emphasis on controlling the running game this year. Last year the focus was on the quality of pitch to the plate, with no regard for the runner on first. There is still a focus on the quality of the pitch to home, but this year the Pirates will be paying a bit more attention to the runners.
“We’ve got something working,” Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said. “The guys are selling into it. They’re buying into it. We’re getting all the work done early. We’re able to transfer some of that into the game. We’re seeing some of the benefits of a concentrated effort collectively by the staff. It hasn’t been one guy. It’s been all of them, and it’s something we’re going to need to improve upon to be better.”
As one of the leaders on the team, and the leader of the pitching staff, having Burnett focusing on the running game is going to send a good message to the other pitchers.
“His buy-in is going to be big in anything we do,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates aren’t just going with pickoff moves. They’re also adjusting the slide-step home, holding the ball longer, and using other methods to keep runners from getting a comfortable lead at first.
“During the game everybody out there…if they’re out there an inning, there’s probably at least two slide-steps involved,” Hurdle said. “They’re holding the ball longer. Not only is it pick-off moves. We’re holding the ball. We’re slide-stepping, and we’re throwing over in different variations. So all of it is what’s getting us the opportunity to make the picks we have that make it work.”
Burnett Has His Best Outing of the Spring
A.J. Burnett had one of his best outings of the Spring today. The right-hander went 4.2 innings, allowing two runs on two hits, with two walks and three strikeouts. Both runs came in the fifth inning, with one of those runs coming off Jared Hughes.
“After the last outing he was disappointed,” Clint Hurdle said. “He just wasn’t able to repeat his delivery, wasn’t able to get ahead of hitters. Today he got first pitch strikes, stayed ahead of the count, up and down five times. The fastball command overall was much better in and out. He spun some balls very, very well. He threw some good changeups today. So a very good outing for A.J. today.”
The right-hander credited his four-seam fastball for his success today.
“Everything runs off [the four-seam fastball],” Burnett said. “Last one I got two-seam happy. Everything plays off that four-seamer. That’s what the difference was today, was just attacking with that pitch and getting ahead and I was able to work on other things.”
Those other things included his curveball, which Burnett was only throwing in specific counts in previous outings this Spring. The increased number of curveballs gave starting catcher Tony Sanchez a workout behind the plate, as Burnett’s curve usually ends up in the dirt.
“I beat up Tony a little bit today, but I didn’t get one by him. So that’s a good sign,” Burnett said. ”I threw four hooks at one time at one guy. That was funny too, you should have seen Tony’s eyes back there. ‘Another one, really?’”
Burnett was originally schedule to go four innings, but was so efficient through four innings that Hurdle sent him back out for the fifth.
“He said ‘you have 45 pitches’,” Burnett commented after the game. “I said ‘What? Don’t I normally have that after two innings?’”
Burnett gave up a leadoff double to Brandon Boggs. Two plays later, Boggs scored on a sacrifice fly. After a two-out walk, Burnett was pulled. Jared Hughes came on and gave up two straight singles to bring the runner around to score.
**Earlier today it was announced that Chase d’Arnaud and Anderson Hernandez went down with injuries. Both players were looked at doctors today. The Pirates flew doctors in today, and both players will be looked at again tomorrow. If MRIs are needed, that will be done Monday. It could take a few days to evaluate Hernandez because of how he hurt his shoulder — falling on it while diving for a ball.
**Clint Hurdle said the staff will meet on Monday about the first cuts.
**The Pirates will stop using the DH on Monday and will start hitting their pitchers.
**Tomorrow the team has a split schedule, with games in Sarasota and Fort Myers. Both games are at 1:05. Clint Hurdle said he will be going to the game in Fort Myers to watch Jonathan Sanchez make a start, rather than watching Gerrit Cole start in Sarasota. The lineup in Fort Myers will also include a lot of players who could be battling for the final spots on the roster.