WASHINGTON — In 2015, the Pirates came out of the All-Star break by losing five of their first six games. In 2016, it’s been much of the same, as they dropped their second straight game to the Washington Nationals, 6-0 on Saturday night.
Also for the second straight game, the Pirates struggled offensively. Through two games, they have one run, 10 hits and none for extra bases. Going up against strong Nationals starting pitching, the Pirates haven’t been able to get to the bullpen, either, as both Stephen Strasburg on Friday and Tanner Roark on Saturday pitched eight innings.
“It was just two performances where they made pitches when they needed to,” said Josh Harrison, who went 1 for 4. “There’s nothing to walk out of here hanging our heads, because we had some balls hit pretty hard tonight.”
The Pirates did indeed put the ball in play frequently against Roark, who struck out five over his eight innings, but his late-breaking two-seamer induced some soft contact.
“We had some balls to hit and we didn’t hit them,” manager Clint Hurdle. “There’s late life and we mis-hit some balls. He used his breaking ball and his changeup effectively, as well. … We had minimal opportunities to do things, and when we did, we fired early and weren’t able to square balls up.”
Not only were the Pirates unable to get many hits, they were having a hard time working counts, as well. Roark didn’t issue a single walk and 80 of his 110 pitches went for strikes.
“I feel like a lot of guys, even when we tried to take pitches, we were 0-1,” Harrison said. “That’s the name of the game for pitchers, they want to get ahead. At the end of the day, we had some times where we were aggressive and it didn’t go our way. The name of the game [for hitters] is to get into the bullpen as early as you can. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to the first two games. We’ve got a chance tomorrow.”
The road doesn’t get much easier with the change of a calendar page, though, as the Pirates will face National League strikeout leader Max Scherzer on Sunday.
One of the stand-out factors in the struggling offense has been the play of third baseman Jung Ho Kang. Kang went 0 for 3 at the plate Saturday. Since June 17 — the date of the alleged sexual assault incident that Kang is being investigated for by the Chicago Police — he is now 10 for 60 (.167). It’s the worst such stretch of Kang’s MLB career.
Before the game, Kang said there’s nothing wrong physically.
“I feel good overall,” he said and even though he admitted that there are lingering issues with the leg injury that ended his 2015 season prematurely, he said that it mostly seems to be an issue on defense.
“It’s not perfect, perfect, but it’s good enough to play games,” he said. “It’s not exactly the same as it was defensively with the current status now, but overall, I feel comfortable.”
Hurdle said that he thinks the issue stems from not making good reads in the batter’s box.
“Right now, I think it’s recognition,” Hurdle said. “He seems to be behind the fastball and ahead of the soft stuff. That’s a hard place for any hitter to be. Most hitters find their way there at some point in time at the season. This will probably be his first struggle since we’ve had him.”
Kang echoed that make adjustments is part of the game, and added that he’s found breaking down video of his at-bats to be helpful in diagnosing the issue.
“[These stretches] are just part of baseball,” he said. “I’m just looking at the videos and working on it every day. Video is helpful. I’m working on my mental game, too.”
Kang didn’t reveal anything further about what particular mental things he’s working on, but the clear connection to draw is that of his off-the-field issue. I asked Hurdle if he was worried about Kang’s mental state given the events, which was clearly the wrong verbiage to use.
“I don’t worry about anything,” Hurdle said. “I pray about things. I talk to men about things. I don’t worry. Worry doesn’t even cross this table”
So if not worry, then what?
“What I’m going to spend my time with is talking to him about what he’s feeling, like I would do with any hitter,” he went on. “What he’s seeing, what he’s feeling and what we can do to help. What can we commit to get the barrel to show up more consistently?”
Gerrit Cole was excited to get off the disabled list and get back on the mound Saturday evening.
That excitement didn’t last long, as he battled from the first inning on, throwing 80 pitches over just four innings and giving up five runs. After the start, about the only good thing he said he could take from it was that he still felt healthy.
With traffic on the bases in three of his four innings, Cole frequently worked from the stretch, something that he didn’t do much of in his rehab starts with Triple-A Indianapolis. The stretch turned out to be a bit of a problem spot for Cole, especially in the Nationals’ three-run fourth inning.
“I think it’s just reps up here [with runners on],” Cole said. “There’s a fine line between staying within your delivery from the stretch but also giving your catcher the opportunity to throw a guy out or keep him at first base. You can hold the ball as long as you want, but if you’re slow to the plate, guys are going to be able to steal. If you try to rush it, you’re going to be flat and the ball’s going to be over the middle of the plate. Those are the things we were trying to fight out of the stretch.”
Overall, Cole said that while the rehab starts went well, there was definitely an adjustment back to the majors that needed to be made.
“I treated it like any other start. There’s no substitute for the speed of the game, but it’s not impossible to do. Unfortunately, I put us in a pretty big hole tonight.”
ANATOMY OF A STOLEN RUN
Sean Rodriguez made an incredible diving catch off the bat of Clint Robinson in right-centerfield to end the first inning and limit the early damage against Cole to just one run in the opening frame by stranding Anthony Rendon.
Super Sean. pic.twitter.com/LsHzCLDZd3
— Pirates (@Pirates) July 17, 2016
According to Major League Baseball’s statcast, Rodriguez reached 19.3 MPH while covering 105 feet to get to the ball and ran the route at 98 percent of its maximum efficiency. That means he strayed from a perfect line between his position and where he caught the ball by just a hair over two feet. The key, he says, is the initial movement, which he made in just .13 seconds, about as long as it takes a person to blink.
“You’re not always going to get the right move or the right read or the right first couple steps of the bat, but I feel you like you win it in the first four or five steps off the bat,” he said. “That’s when you know if you got a good jump or if you got the right angle and the right read.”
So in that tenth of a second, what is an outfielder looking for? Well, everything, and nothing.
“There’s a lot of things you can look at,” Rodriguez said. “You hear the sound, you see if it jumps off the bat a certain way. You know the hitter, obviously, if he’s the kind of guy that can drive the ball even if it does get in on him or off the end a little bit. A lot of things come into play.”
But with the timing involved, the only way to make such a catch is to have the process be automatic and instinctual.
“It’s just repetition, whether it’s in BP or in the game, just getting reps makes you more consistent,” he said. “You have to get out there, play the ball and then it’s repetition, repetition. That’s the only way you can be consistently effective.”
I asked Rodriguez how long it took him to get comfortable doing that, after all, he had come up through the minors as an infielder. But he said that he’s felt at home in the outfield for a long time.
“I always tell people, I’m a natural outfielder, not an infielder,” he said. “I got up as an infielder and I play infield, but I’ve always found the outfield more natural than the infield. I actually had to teach myself to play infield. Through three years of high school, I played center field. I didn’t play infield until my senior year.”
While Rodriguez ran a near-perfect route and caught the ball at pretty much full extension, he’s confident that he could make an even longer catch under the right circumstances.
“If the ball is up in the air and I don’t run out of room, I’ll keep going,” he laughed.
FIRST TIME OUT
Jon Niese made his first relief appearance of the season, allowing a hit and a walk in two innings of work. He seemed please with the results and his mindset on the mound, even though he was wild at times, particularly with his cut fastball.
“It felt good,” he said. “Adrenaline was going pretty good the first inning. I was able to settle down and was fortunate to have a quick second.”
I asked if he thought about simplifying his five-pitch repertoire for bullpen work, particularly in an instance where one pitch seems to be giving him some trouble.
“I think the reason I’ve been able to have a good career is having that big repertoire of pitches and being able to use all of them in every location,” Niese said. “That’s not going to change.”
He also said that his arm responds well to pitching out of the bullpen from a readiness standpoint.
“I could pitch [Sunday],” he said. “I could pitch every day, to be honest with you.”
A.J. Schugel gave up one run in his one inning of work, a home run by Rendon. … Juan Nicasio pitched one scoreless inning. … Catcher Eric Fryer went 0 for 3. He’s now 0 for 6 in the series after going 3 for 7 against he Cubs to end the first half. … Harrison made his seventh error of the season on an infield hit by Roark in the fourth. Cole’s fifth run was unearned because of Harrison’s error.