BRADENTON, Fla. — Francisco Cervelli is a pretty animated baseball player. If you’ve been paying any attention to his Pirates’ career, you’ve probably noticed the fiery catcher get heated once or twice.
Maybe more so than at any other time, Cervelli has become known for his reaction when a ball or strike call goes against him when he’s in the batter’s box.
Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays at LECOM Park, a familiar scene played out. Cervelli offered a check swing at a ball on the outside corner. Home plate umpire Jeremie Rehak barked, “strike.” Cervelli jumped around, arms outstretched in disbelief and mouthed, “No, no, no, no, no.”
There’s a difference about Cervelli’s protestations this spring, though. For the most part, he’s been spot on. Cervelli saw 22 pitches in four at-bats on Thursday. He went 2-for-3 with a walk. He didn’t swing and miss at a single pitch outside the strike zone and his check-swing strike in the first was the only one called against him.
In 35 plate appearances this spring, he’s drawn six walks and his on-base percentage sits a .486. When he’s making contact, he’s doing so with authority, as well. He has two home runs and two doubles and his slugging percentage is .690. For the math impaired, that’s a 1.176 OPS. It’s only spring, of course, but if Cervelli can keep is OBP high while increasing his power, he could really provide some value for the Pirates in the batter’s box to go along with his defense.
“He’s seeing pitches,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think he had 20 pitches after three at bats tonight. He’s swung the bat pretty aggressively from start until now. He’s in a good place.”
In the second inning, Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl came to the plate against Toronto starter Joe Biagini. Biagini represented something of a familiar foe for Kuhl, who had faced him since at least Double-A, and Kuhl, 1-for-4 at the plate already this spring, was looking to cash in.
Unfortunately, Biagani got him in on the hands, and Kuhl hit a comebacker, chucking his bat to the side in disgust as he trotted down the baseline.
“I just got beat,” Kuhl said. “It was just in. It was a good pitch. I was a little heated that I missed it and that I didn’t swing at the one before, too.”
It’s an interested dynamic for Kuhl and the rest of the Pirates’ young pitchers. With four starters carrying under two years of MLB service time, they certainly have plenty of work in the pitching department to occupy their time. But it’s also a group of young, athletic player that feel like they can do some damage in the batter’s box, as well.
“I think our batting has grown,” Kuhl said. “You saw Jamo smoke one against the Twins. I got a chance to get a little knock. I think it’s going to be a decent hitting club. We’ve gained experience on the mound, but there’s a little experience at the plate, too.”
Kuhl hinted that there is some type of competition amongst the starters when it comes to hitting, but he declined to divulge details. He did say that Steven Brault is the hitting coach of the staff.
“He’s good and he’ll let you know it,” Kuhl said, smiling.
GETTING IN WORK
Over at Pirates City, Jameson Taillon threw 5.2 innings and 95 pitches in his longest outing of the spring. Tim Williams was there and took some video of Taillon’s appearance.
With regular rest, Taillon would be scheduled to pitch next on March 27, the final day before the Pirates break camp. His first regular-season appearance will be during the home opener on April 2, so he’ll have to take an extra day of rest somewhere over the next 11 days.
Lefty Josh Smoker was dinged for a solo home run in his one inning of work. He’s competing with Kevin Siegrist for a lefty middle relief spot in the bullpen, but it sounds as if the Pirates are working on him with longer-term goals in mind.
“They’re sitting on fastballs,” Hurdle said. “We’re trying to work on his secondary pitches. I think he’s given up four of five home runs this spring. He’s attacking the zone. We’re looking at a guy that’s shown some signs of some success at the Major League level. He finished extremely strong last year. He’s working hard to develop his secondary pitches and improves his fastball command. Those are going to be his keys to success.”
FINDING A ROLE
Kuhl threw just 85 of his scheduled 100 pitches. He finished up in the bullpen. The move was made to get Dovydas Neverauskas into the game in the middle of an inning. Neverauskas is also looking to secure a middle relief spot, and the Pirates don’t really have a player — outside of Rule 5 draftee Jordan Milbrath — that would profile as a guy that could come in with runners on base.
“The last week of the season, we usually pare it down to do some situational stuff with our relievers,” Hurdle said. “And we’re still looking for that guy that can come in and get a ground ball.”
Neverauskas had a 42.3 ground ball percentage in the majors last year, but had been as high as 57 percent in the minors. If he can make that part of his game, it might be the key to him landing a spot on the 25-man roster.