PITTSBURGH — On Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Ivan Nova, the Pirates most consistent and only veteran starter, faltered. The rookies picked him up.
Nova allowed two runs on seven hits while scuffling through an uncharacteristically short five innings of work. He snapped a 15-start streak of starts with six or more innings pitched, and even the outs, usually quick and efficient grounders, were instead hard-hit balls.
But after Nova gave up a run on two hits in the top of the first, the Pirates offense let loose with a four-run barrage that gave the team the lead for good in what became a 6-2, series-equaling victory.
Powering the offensive surge were the young guys, as rookies Josh Bell, Elias Diaz, and Jose Osuna drove in five of the six runs.
In the first, hitting fifth, sixth, and seventh, they struck in back-to-back-to-back fashion. After two-out walks by Andrew McCutchen and David Freese, Osuna doubled, Bell walked, Freese scored on a wild pitch, and Diaz doubled to plate four runs.
Even on a night that Nova called “not the best one,” a four-run cushion was all he needed.
“As soon as they gave me that lead, I said I didn’t want to give it away,” Nova said. “They kept putting some runs up there. They gave me six runs and I left in the fifth more than comfortable knowing that the bullpen could come in behind me and take those four innings for me.”
Rookies contributing are nothing new for the Pirates, who have the eighth-youngest team in baseball with at least a half-dozen players that still count as rookies. But they haven’t shown up in a big way offensively.
The Pirates brought up a wave of young pitchers over the last two seasons, with Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Jameson Taillon matriculating to the majors, and Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, Edgar Santana, and Dovydas Neverauskas getting experience, as well.
But the same thing has happened on offense, perhaps with less fanfare. Bell, Diaz, Osuna, and Max Moroff all started on Wednesday. Adam Frazier was given the day off on the bench. That’s five of the team’s 12 position players that were still with Triple-A Indianapolis one year ago.
Osuna has been a part-time player in the outfield and it took injuries to Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli for Diaz to get playing time, so the effect of the youngsters in the lineup hasn’t been as profound as it has been on the pitching staff. But it’s there.
According to wRC+, Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen are the team’s best hitters. Next are Osuna, Bell, and Frazier in that order. It’s to the point that the young guys might start to push for playing time.
Frazier seems to have locked in a spot in the outfield, until at least Starling Marte returns and both he and Osuna are hitting better than Polanco.
Much like last year, when the Pirates had four or five pitchers come up and contribute, this year the hitters are getting their chance to come up as a unit and succeed.
“It’s fun,” Bell said. “We all had that same ream, looking back four to five years ago, playing together in West Virginia, going up through Double-A together, Triple-A. For us to be winning ballgames up here instills a lot of pride in us.”
That pride is a two-way street, as well.
“They can play,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “They’re good players. They came out of our minor-league system. We’re proud of them. They’re getting opportunity for real reps up here at real times.”
DIAZ GETS IT DONE
While Diaz has impressed the most with his bat since his most recent recall — and that streak continued Wednesday as he went 2 for 4 with two RBIs — he’s most well-known for his defensive work and he showed off his ability to work with a pitcher.
With his fastball lacking its trademarked downward angle, Nova was scuffling through three innings before he and Diaz made an adjustment to get him back on the right track.
“We’re getting used to each other,” Nova said. “You don’t expect to be on the right page with a guy right away. We’ve been feeling more comfortable with each other. My command wasn’t there today. It wasn’t that he wasn’t calling the right pitches, I just didn’t throw strikes.”
Hurdle has spoken at length about his experiences as a young catcher being thrust into a role where he had to catch veteran pitchers. He was impressed with the way Diaz handled things Wednesday.
“Diaz has worked with Nova a couple of times,” Hurdle said. “That was a work together. That was a joint effort. There’s not many times a catcher has had to help him go out there and draw things up in the dirt. Diaz was able to do that as well.”
Bell’s solo home run was his 15th of the season, which tied Ralph Kiner for a Pirates first-half rookie record. … The Pirates bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, but to do so, Hurdle used Daniel Hudson, Tony Watson, Juan Nicasio, and Felipe Rivero with a four-run lead. Hudson, Nicasio, and Rivero have now pitched in consecutive games. … Moroff went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to drop his season average to .100.