PITTSBURGH — In his short major-league career, Chad Kuhl has had a recurring problem where in some of his starts, he overthrows his sinker. When a sinker is thrown too hard, it doesn’t sink as sharply, leaving it up in the zone and more susceptible to be hit hard in the air.
For a guy that leans pretty heavily on that pitch, that can be a big issue and it’s something that Kuhl’s worked on a lot since making his MLB debut in 2016. But there’s no replicating the conditions of a game in a big-league ballpark with 33,004 people in the stands and a team in a tight battle on the scoreboard.
That was the situation Kuhl faced on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves. But unlike some of Kuhl’s starts last season, when the control of his fastball wasn’t on point in the early going, it didn’t snowball into something more than that. Kuhl settled into his start, used some new tricks and helped the Pirates to a 6-4 win.
In the first inning, he got bailed out by his defense, as Adam Frazier snagged a hard-hit line drive and doubled off a runner at second base. In the second, he gave up two runs on three hits and a pair of walks. The walks were an issue throughout. He finished with six and a hit batter in five innings. But Kuhl found a way to continue to get outs and keep himself and his team in the game.
“Early on, I just felt a little out of control,” Kuhl said. “You look at all the negatives, but at the end of the day, I made enough pitches to get the ‘W’ and get outs. … I just stayed true to what I do and just focused on staying a little quieter mechanically and just get the ball down. I didn’t try to overthink it. I went and attacked.”
Manger Clint Hurdle said that he saw a little bit of the overthrowing that has been an issue for Kuhl in the past. The first four Atlanta hits were all in the air.
“Yeah, we saw some more of that tonight, I think,” Hurdle said. “He’s going to run hot. He’s never going to be a guy who’s going to slow down. He’s got a motor. We want him to use the motor, be athletic, make pitches, but we need to find a place where we’re repeating our delivery, we’re finishing pitches, we’re staying on top of the ball to get the sink, not getting on the side of it. I thought Cervelli did a real nice job to keep him in play and keep him in compete mode where the game never really got away from him.”
One of the things that Kuhl used to get through his start despite the lack of sink on his two-seamer was the four-seam fastball he’s been working on improving. He combined that pitch with his breaking ball and changeup to get six strikeouts, five of which came against left-handed hitters Ender Inciarte, Freddie Freeman and Jace Peterson.
“It’s just an added weapon,” Kuhl said. “I did a really nice job, I think, with the lefties today. I got in on [Nick] Markakis and broke his bat. It fell for a hit, but we got the result we really wanted. A couple of the rising fastballs against lefties went for strikeouts. It was a weapon for sure today.”
Alen Hanson made his first appearance of the season, pinch-hitting in the sixth inning. Hanson hit a hard ground ball up the middle that bounced high into the air off the pitcher’s rubber and went for an infield hit.
After getting on base, Hanson was a further menace, getting R.A. Dickey to throw to first several times before uncorking a wild pitch. Hanson then advanced to third and scored on passed balls by Atlanta catcher Kurt Suzuki. While he was on base, Dickey walked Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen and Hanson’s on-base presence could have been a factor.
“This is the way I play the game,” Hanson said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “If I get on base, I’m going to be stealing those bases and taking advantage of any opportunity I get to make sure I get that run in.”
After the structured environment of Spring Training, when Hanson knew exactly when he would be playing and where, he has been asked to be ready to come into a game at any point at any number of different positions and also be ready to pinch hit. He’s developed a strategy for keeping himself mentally prepared for all of those possibilities, by taking pieces of what was his pregame routine as a starter and spreading them out during the game to stay loose and ready.
“One of the things that has helped me out is that from the first inning, I’m trying to be not just mentally prepared but also relaxed and keeping myself warmed up and ready for any opportunity,” he said. “Obviously, playing in the National League, there are a lot of situations like this. Right now, I have my own routine where throughout certain innings I do things to maintain myself to be equipped and ready for any opportunity in the game. It’s been helping me out so far.”
Hanson is of course still learning some of the nuances of positions like third base, left and right field, which he did not play a lot of in the minors having come up as a shortstop and then primarily playing second base. He took extra fielding practice before the game on Saturday, but he said he doesn’t mind the workload.
“It was definitely a process getting familiar with every position and all of that stuff, however I’m very grateful for the opportunity the Pirates have given me,” he said. “I just want to remain equipped and ready so that any opportunity I get to help the team, I’ll be able to do that.”
Gregory Polanco snapped a 1 for 14 start to his season by going 4 for 4 with two runs. … David Freese (left chest) did not play. … Hurdle said that Daniel Hudson will likely not be available on Sunday and Tony Watson may not, either, after both threw one inning of relief for the second consecutive night. Felipe Rivero, who needed just seven pitches to get through the seventh inning, should be good to go.