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.”