CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Pirates threw four pitchers that all had a chance to factor into the discussion for one of the team’s open bullpen spots on Sunday.
I say had because very quickly into the game, Josh Lindblom put a pretty serious dent in his chances by giving up five runs and eight hits in 1.2 innings. Lindblom was off with his command from the very start and when he was hit, he was hit hard. He gave up four extra base hits including two home runs in the first inning and walked the bases loaded with two outs in the second before manager Clint Hurdle had finally seen enough.
“He wasn’t getting balls where he wanted to,” Hurdle said. “It was just a rough day for him as far as execution and sharpness. It just didn’t work out well.”
Lindblom is the last of the non-roster invitees hanging on in the bullpen, so Sunday’s result very well could be the end of the road for him. He was picked up by Wade LeBlanc, who stranded all three inherited runners and went on to pitch 3.1 scoreless innings while giving up just three hits. The Phillies kept most of their lineup — which featured five regular starters — in the game through LeBlanc’s appearance, so it made for an easy comparison. Hurdle thinks LeBlanc, who has a 3.86 ERA this spring, can be even better as the season goes on.
“I actually think that Wade’s a guy that the stuff is going to play better as the season goes on and hitters get more fine-tuned, because he’s going to play off [their] adrenaline, he plays off speeding them up and slowing them down,” he said. “He’s still done a good job for us. He’s got experience. He’s got a slow heartbeat. He can pitch in a variety of roles. … The versatility is definitely something that’s attractive to us.”
Not having a set role is nothing new to LeBlanc. For a guy that’s pitched on eight teams in the last three seasons, just coming back to Pittsburgh after a 12-inning audition at the end of last season has provided a modicum of stability.
“Man, this is my ninth big-league camp, I think and I haven’t known what role I’m going to have at any of them,” LeBlanc said. “You get used to it after a while.”
LeBlanc was followed by Jared Hughes and A.J. Schugel, who also tossed scoreless outings. Hurdle said that Schugel, even though he hasn’t has had as impressive of a spring as LeBlanc, is still a strong contender because of the body of work he put in last season, with 52 innings pitched and a 1.038 WHIP.
“He gave us added innings a whole bunch of times when some of the other guys out there weren’t playing as well. We went through an early period where our middle relief was struggling. He came in and actually provided a stable hand on it.
Hughes’ spring got off to a disastrous start. At one point his ERA was 108. But he’s settled into something more approaching his normal self and has allowed two earned runs in his last four appearances, and even those were a bit specious as the Pirates defense kicked the ball around a good bit behind him Fort Myers last week.
“I think my timing is getting there and it’s getting close to where I need to be for the season,” Hughes said. “The ball is on the ground a lot. It’s what I’m looking for, for the sinker to put the ball on the ground. That’s why I’m here.”
One of the other factors in the bullpen is the decision the Pirates must make on Rule 5 draftee Tyler Webb. The 26-year-old lefty has to be offered back to the New York Yankees if he doesn’t make the team and that could potentially affect other plans. Hughes and Schugel have options remaining while LeBlanc does not.
“[Webb is] also in that mix,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We like what we’ve seen. It’s a versatile left-hander. Doesn’t show a ton of weapons but doesn’t get a lot of hard contact allowed. Gets a lot of awkward swings. We’re working through that process – will he be one of the 12 that we carry, or do we have to go through the process and offer him back to New York? We’re still working through that.”
Webb will follow Ivan Nova and Felipe Rivero at LECOM Park Monday night when the Pirates host the Minnesota Twins. Chad Kuhl is expected to throw 100 pitches at Pirate City. He’ll be joined there by Antonio Bastardo.
Josh Bell faced switch pitcher Pat Venditte in the fourth inning. Venditte came into the game to relieve Philadelphia starter Clay Buchholz and warmed up pitching both right- and left-handed. Bell had his left-handed batting helmet on in order to prepare for the right-handed Buchholz. Then he and Venditte played a bit of a cat and mouse game.
Venditte kept his glove on his right hand, implying that he intended to pitch lefty. Bell stood in the right-handed batter’s box, but was wearing his left-handed batting helmet. Then he went back to get his right-handed helmet. On Bell’s way back to the box, Venditte announced his intention to pitch right-handed, forcing Bell to once again go back to get his left-handed helmet. Bell said that he’s seen Venditte before and that the mind games he can play are nothing new.
“I’ve seen it before, because he did it with Antoan Richardson last year,” Bell said. “It’s just another at-bat. It’s cool that he can do that.”
Hurdle said that he actually preferred that Bell hit left-handed, citing his better numbers as lefty. Bell had a .820 OPS as a left-handed hitter in 2016, compared to a .515 mark from the right side. Though the Pirates got the matchup they were looking for, Venditte ended up being the victor, getting Bell to ground into a double play. Maybe the mind games worked, after all.