PITTSBURGH — In the Pirates’ four-game series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers that ended in a 5-2 defeat on Thursday, some of the team’s younger players were the most victimized by the National League’s best club.
Reliever Angel Sánchez made his major-league debut and allowed back-to-back home runs to Yasmani Grandal and Adrian Gonzalez. Before that, Steven Brault pitched in long relief in the majors for the first time all season and gave up one run and five hits in 2.2 innings.
Catcher Elias Diaz finished the series 2-for-11 at the plate, including an 0-for-4 night with two strikeouts and two double plays. Jose Osuna went a slightly better 1-for-5.
Dovydas Neverauskas pitched in the 12th inning on Monday and gave up a solo home run to Yasiel Puig that cost his team the game. Edgar Santana was victimized by Grandal for a two-run home run on Tuesday.
As all of that was happening, the Pirates lost three of four to fall to 8.5 games back in the NL Central, essentially extinguishing any chance they had at a postseason berth.
While the combination hasn’t been a good one for the fate of the 2017 Pirates, there’s value in getting young players involved in the games before it becomes the malaise of September baseball. At the outset of the series, the Pirates had a legitimate if not necessarily realistic chance to knock off the top team in the league. The Dodgers, on pace to win just shy of a billion games, are still trying their hardest to win, too, and aren’t letting up.
Even though the Pirates were defeated in the series, they hung right with the best team in the NL, coming from behind to tie the game on both Monday and Tuesday, before Wednesday’s unbelievable duel with Rich Hill.
“It’s always good to work with more consistency at the minor-league level,” manager Clint Hurdle said on Wednesday. “However, your games here, they have bigger impact and the lessons are harder to learn. When things don’t go well here, to deal with that adversity. Because sometimes, in the minor leagues, yes you get coached up and you maybe don’t win a game, but there’s a magnification level.”
Diaz has had to deal with the increased expectations of replacing a starter, while the relievers have pitched not knowing how many days in the majors they have ahead of them. The Pirates have made 17 roster moves involving relievers in the month of August.
“That’s OK. The angst is real. That’s part of the development,” Hurdle said. “I think that’s a big part of it.”
Sánchez got the chance to go back out after his two-homer inning and pitch another one, which gave him a bit of a confidence boost and allowed him to shake off the butterflies of his major-league debut.
The reason that the development of those players is important is that they’re still in the mix for playing time in 2018. As the Pirates have dealt with players like Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams, a rookie season as a major contributor is bound to have ups and downs. Getting some of those out of the way ahead of time could be a boon for next season.
The catching position, in particular, takes time to master, meaning that Diaz’s experience this season will go a long way to deciding what Neal Huntington decides to do with the catcher position going forward.
Chris Stewart has a team option for 2018. Francisco Cervelli has been limited to 80 games while dealing with a slew of injuries — a common thread in his career. Is Diaz a starter? A backup? Now is the time to find out.
“I think it takes a lot more time than maybe some people have given a thought to,” Hurdle said. “The pitch sequencing now is as big of a part of the game as there is. Getting people out has never been more important than right now with the home run rates the way they are. … It’s important in the minor-league level, but again, that gap is also very large. The importance of a Triple-A game and major-league game whether you won or lost, that’s a large gap.”
Hurdle was critical of the sequence that led to Santana giving up a home run, when he started his outing with 10 straight fastballs. Those are the kind of lessons that Diaz must learn at the major-league level that won’t show up obviously on a scorecard. It’s why teams across Major League Baseball put such a high price tag on experience. The Pirates haven’t been able to meet that price tag at a number of positions over the years. If they’re going to be young again in 2018, the next month will provide valuable experience and evaluations going forward.