PITTSBURGH — For the last few seasons, the Pirates have become noteworthy for being a place that has restored a large number of cast-off pitchers to a level that met or exceeded their previous career highs.
A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano all came to Pittsburgh and exceeded expectations under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage.
Jon Niese was supposed to fit that mold. He already threw the Pirates’ preferred offering: the two-seam fastball. He had a career ERA (3.91) that seemed to line up with a number four starter and his FIP (3.84) was right in line with that figure. If anything, Niese seemed to have upside as a number three starter with some help from the Pirates’ staff and the added benefit of playing in front of a much better defense than he did in New York.
Halfway through that season it seems that this project has been a failure. Niese’s latest outing lasted just 3.2 innings, before Clint Hurdle came out with an early hook, preferring to trust the bullpen in what would become a 6-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs Sunday afternoon.
Niese now has a career-worst 5.13 ERA and has been repeatedly a victim of home runs, a red flag for a sinkerballer. He gave up his 20th of the season to light-hitting Albert Almora, Jr. After the game, Hurdle again cited Niese arm angle, a common refrain over his last few less-than-stellar starts.
“[It’s] the consistency of the angle. When he’s been good, there’s been good downhill angle created and he’s had good command down in the zone east and west. There were too many pitches elevated again today. That’s really been the one common theme is location, better location down.”
But to hear it from Niese, he doesn’t seem to think that the club’s attempted adjustments have been beneficial.
“I’m really done worrying about my mechanics,” he said. “I’m out there worrying about mechanics and I’m not executing pitches. For me, the arm angle, it is what it is as long as I’m executing pitches, and I’m not. This All-Star break is going to be good. It’s a good reset button. I’m going to go home, enjoy the family and come back in the second half and give it all I got, start executing pitches.”
Niese seems to think that his sinker would perform better by just throwing it with his natural motion and not doing so much thinking on the mound.
”When you’re out there on the mound thinking too much is when you don’t execute,” he said. “I’m just going to trust my stuff and just execute. That’s all I can say.”
He admitted that sometimes, that’s easier said than done.
“You have to think less,” he said. “It’s not just telling yourself, you just have to. The more you’re thinking out there, the more variables there are and the more things that can go wrong. I’m just going to go out there and trust my stuff and execute pitches. It’s tough. I’ve never been on this bad of a run pitching. Like I said, I’m going to reset this All-Star break, come back in the second half and give it all I’ve got. The results will change.”
Niese walked two Cubs, Kris Bryant to lead off the third and Javier Baez to start the fourth, and both of them came around to score. Hurdle pointed to first-pitch strikes as a reason for the overall poor performance in addition to the free passes.
“Getting strike one always plays best,” he said. “On the day, we were just a little bit over 50 percent on the day. Jon is a guy that needs to get strike one. He needs to get in and out of at-bats quick. The two guys that he walked are big-swing guys, guys that have good numbers against left-handed pitchers. You have to stay aggressive, stay on the gas and challenge. He wasn’t able to get balls close enough for swings. Both of them — especially Baez — he’ll take a rip. Those two walks hurt us and at the end of the day they were the only two walks we had.”
Niese agreed that the walks were an issue, but again pointed to the overall feeling of his sinker.
“Walks will kill you, especially lead-off walks,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t want to do it, but it happened. So, it’s just something that I have to avoid and eliminate down the road. That Heyward at-bat, I pretty much just let it eat. I didn’t think about it and just went out there and just threw it. That’s what I’m just going to have to go out there and do. When I let it eat, it seems like the majority of the time, I execute my pitch better instead of trying to execute it, which is normally when I get in trouble and make mistakes.”
The Pirates were able to stay with the Cubs thanks to the continued contributions of red-hot hitters Josh Bell, Andrew McCutchen and Sean Rodriguez.
Rodriguez homered in the second for his fourth round-tripper in as many starts. McCutchen hit a solo shot in the third and then hit a sac fly in the seventh to score Bell.
“It’s vintage Andrew,” Hurdle said. “We’ve seen more of this than we have the other. I really believe that when you’re talking about good pitchers, good fielders, good hitters, the longer they go without a hit, the better chance there is they’ll get a hit.”
Bell had started the inning with a lead-off pinch-hit walk. He started out by getting into an 0-2 hole against Cubs starter John Lackey, but he battled back and nine pitches later, he was on first base.
“I’m not sure he could have a better three at-bats, just based on what was out there for those at-bats,” Hurdle said. “Today, a lead-off at-bat against a guy that’s an experienced guy, to stretch that out, it was good to see. He checked all the boxes we had for him when we called him up. It was to help as a bat off the bench, to help us win some games.”
Bell also made a nice baserunning play to get himself to third base for McCutchen’s sacrifice fly. With Bell on second and John Jaso on first, Starling Marte hit a ground ball to third base. Baez tried to tag Bell, but the he turned around and ran back to second base. Baez threw to Ben Zobrist at second, who attempted to convert a double play. But Marte beat the throw and Bell hustled back to third to set up the sacrifice.
“He made a very good baserunning play to throw it in reverse and to stay out of the tag, then be able to restart it and get to third base, that was very good baseball awareness and a very good play there,” Hurdle said.
Matt Joyce (quad) and Josh Harrison (foot) both pinch-hit. Gregory Polanco (hamstring) did not play. Jeff Locke pitched 2.1 scoreless innings in his first bullpen work since 2012. Tony Watson gave up one run on two hits in the eighth to take the loss. The Pirates next game is Friday, July 15 at the Washington Nationals.