Pirates Break Through Against a Rookie Starter, Break (Short) Losing Streak

For whatever reason, the Pirates struggled this season to defeat pitchers that are greener than most in the league.

The phenomena seemed to start in Milwaukee when Jimmy Nelson gave up two hits and struck out nine in seven shutout innings. He again shut the Pirates out for six innings in June. Nelson is 3-8 with a 4.64 ERA this season. Yet against the Pirates, who he’s held to two earned runs over 18 innings, Nelson is 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA. That leaves him 1-7 with a 5.65 ERA against everyone else he’s faced.

Later in the year Nelson’s teammate, right-hander Taylor Jungmann, made his major-league debut against the Pirates. He allowed only one run on three hits in seven innings.

Friday, another young arm dominated the Pirates. Washington’s Joe Ross, who is no longer in the rotation with Stephen Strasburg’s return, struck out 11 Pittsburgh hitters in 7 1/3 innings of one-run baseball as the Nationals began their sweep of the Pirates.

The Cincinnati Reds rolled into Pittsburgh with Johnny Cueto, he of the 18-4 career record against the Pirates, slated to start Tuesday’s game. But when news broke his start would be pushed to Friday to give him more rest, the news didn’t provide the necessary respite it should for the Pirates.

Namely, because Josh Smith would make his major-league debut.

In May, Smith’s rotation-mate Michael Lorenzen made his second career start against the Pirates and held them to one run and three hits in six innings.

Prior to Tuesday’s game, manager Clint Hurdle said Smith would test the Pirates discipline at the plate. Smith possesses a fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup. While his velocity tops out in the low 90s, his command is superb.

Over 74 innings in the minor leagues this season, Smith walked only 13 batters. Against an aggressive-swinging Pirates team, Smith had a chance to make a memorable debut.

Smith proceeded to carry a no-hitter into the third inning. Down 4-0 and going on 30 innings without holding a lead, things looked bleak for the Pirates Tuesday.

But Smith also walked five as the Pirates stayed “stubborn” at the plate to wear him out. While the approach didn’t make a dent in the scoreboard, there was a peripheral toll taken on Smith.

“It hurt with pitch count and pitches seen per hitter,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “There’s a huge advantage seeing more pitches and seeing his full mix, having a chase to see the fastball, breaking ball and changeup in an at-bat.”

It was only a matter of time.

The second time through the lineup, the Pirates struck. And they struck Smith hard.

Neil Walker worked the Pirates sixth walk at Smith’s expense leading off the fourth and Josh Harrison followed with Pittsburgh’s first hit. Pedro Alvarez doubled to the wall to score Walker and cut Cincinnati’s lead to 4-1.

Catcher Francisco Cervelli then lit into a 2-1 fastball from Smith and sent it into the bullpen for a game-tying three-run home run. At 79 pitches, 40 of which were balls, Smith was gone before he could record an out in the fourth.

The Pirates proceeded to score seven runs in the fourth, all the firepower they needed to win 7-6. The big inning was a byproduct of the Pirates maintaining their approach at the plate, which could have been more challenging than usual coming off a sweep in which they scored three runs and were no-hit.

“We just kept reminding us we didn’t need to be in a hurry,” Hurdle said. “We wanted to have the best at bat we could, one pitch at a time. See the pitches you really need to see.”

Big blows in the inning came on Cervelli’s home run and Andrew McCutchen’s two-run homer that scored the eventual game-winning run, putting the Pirates up 7-4.

McCutchen chalked his home run up to simply being able to see the ball better.

“When there’s no clouds and there’s sun and shadow, it’s a little difficult, it’s a little tough, especially with a guy that you never seen before,” McCutchen said. “I mean, we’re up there battling, battling, battling. We said ‘hey, once that sun goes away and that shadow goes away, we’re going to pick it up’ and that’s exactly what we did.”

  • This is nothing new. For the last 2-3 years the Pirates have struggled against inexperienced MLB pitchers. Once in awhile the Pirates hit them hard but usually just roll over. I almost cringe when I hear they will face a rookie. On the other hand, I didn’t particularly want to see them flail against Cueto either!

    • It’d be interesting to see someone actually compile the numbers the Pirates have against whatever we define “inexperienced” pitchers as. While i certainly can remember the bad ones, my mind keeps thinking “thats always going to be what fans remember”. A look at how the Pirates have done overall against rookie pitchers would be interesting to see if its selective memory or legit recall.

      • My guess would be much less than it’s made out to be.

        Sure didn’t have much problem with Rodon and Syndergaard.

        • My guess would be that we struggle more with young pitchers who have good breaking pitches. Without having previously seen the particular breaking ball I would think we struggle a little more. Rodon and Syndergaard both have good fastballs and work heavily off of them. Nelson was a perfect example as he killed us with his curve.

          • Not to excuse the team at all, but Nelson also basically changed how he was as a pitcher. The scouting report any team had on him didnt include him using the curve as much as he did early in the year. He drastically changed his approach, and PIT was the first team out of ST to see it.

        • I suspect this as well, that any lacking of stats isnt as drastic as is often portrayed.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 24, 2015 11:17 am

    It was great to see the 7 run inning, especially after appearing to be sleep walking through the first 3-4 innings despite getting 5 free passes. Camenaro, Watson, and Melancon all pitched well.

    Now the bad news….other than the one 7 run inning, the offense did nothing. Locke was shaky again.

    On a side note….I think Scott Kazmir would be a great addition to the rotation, as he will likely come much cheaper than Hamels. I don’t know Kazmir’s contract status however…

  • Nice to get a win when pitching and defense were pretty awful early on. Says a lot about the character of the team to persevere to bust out of their funk.

  • Pedro gave another stellar performance. Last year he was the worst defensive 3B this year he is the worst 1B. I wonder if they can convert him to be a $ 6 million dollar bullpen catcher.?

    • I have finally thrown in the towel on him. It rattled Locke on the liner but he managed around most of the damage could have been much worse

  • Nate: Great angle on the game against another newbie pitcher. Cincy has been struggling to keep pace with the Cubs and Pirates, and games like that one last night will not help. For the Pirates, it is just what the doctor ordered.

    • Just saying…how incredible would Todd Frazier look in this lineup? Think he can play 1B? Haha

      • Darkstone42
        June 24, 2015 2:30 pm

        He can, and he has. As far as I know, he looks alright there, too.

        • Everyone will be calling on Cueto…I would love to see Frazier in a Bucco uniform. And he’s in a similar situation to Neil Walker as Frazier (29) can/is cost controlled through his 31 year old season. I do wonder, though, how Frazier would fare outside of Great American.

          • Darkstone42
            June 24, 2015 5:03 pm

            That power is very real, he’s not strictly a product of his ball park. But I can’t imagine he’s part of what the Reds would be looking to sell off, either, and if he is, he’s going to cost quite a bit.

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