PITTSBURGH — The Pirates had run into their first real roadblock of their 2018 season, having lost two miserable, blustery games to the Rockies at PNC Park.
For Wednesday afternoon’s pleasingly sun-splashed series finale at PNC Park, not only did Clint Hurdle start with Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson and Colin Moran on the bench, the Pirates also had one of their more erratic starters on the mound in Chad Kuhl.
Kuhl had made it through five innings in each of his first three starts, sure, but his sporadic command and middle-of-the-road performance in his Pirates career to date put him behind at least Jameson Taillon, and maybe Trevor Williams and Iván Nova on the confidence scale.
Through three innings Wednesday, it sure looked like more of the same, but Kuhl locked in from there and the Pirates’ bench powered a 13-hit attack in what became a 10-2 win.
“It’s healthy for the team,” Clint Hurdle said after his team overcame a one-run deficit and improved to 12-6. “It’s healthy for the individuals. You incorporate all the information you’ve got and you give a couple of guys who have been playing just about every inning some time down.”
The information Hurdle spoke of boiled down to lefty Rockies starter Kyle Freeland having a pretty pronounced traditional platoon split in his 30-some starts at this level. As for Cervelli’s absence, it was a day game after a night game.
In other words, that’s the daily grind of Major League Baseball.
But on a week when the Pirates’ offense had slowed to a crawl and two-way contributor Josh Harrison was lost for over a month, you could sympathize with fans who turned their noses up at the lineup card.
There was plenty of talk of preparation and process after the game, but the most important part of Wednesday was purely result-oriented. The fifth through eighth hitters in the lineup — David Freese, Sean Rodríguez, Elias Díaz and Max Moroff — combined for six hits, three walks and five RBIs.
“We were all thinking before the game, you have your everyday guys getting a little breather,” said Freese, who was one of those everyday guys not too long ago. “You want to take pride in stepping up and making it seem like a seamless transition. Today was a day we showed up and helped get the ‘W.’ ”
Freese’s two-out walk in the third allowed Rodríguez to give the Pirates their first lead of the series with a short-porch homer down the left-field line. Moroff and Freese chipped in run-scoring doubles to grow the margin and give Kuhl some welcomed room for error.
“The offense has been awesome so far,” Kuhl said after getting through six innings on 98 pitches, allowing a run on four hits and three walks.
“There was some urgency to get it back to our winning ways.”
The Pirates’ early success has been interesting in a few ways, with the following being one of them: While their offense has been at or near the top of National League rankings in many categories, their starting pitching has been the most consistent aspect in at least one way.
To wit: After Kuhl’s Wednesday outing, the Pirates are the only team in the majors that has gotten at least five innings from its starters in every game of the young season. Also, the 105 1/3 innings they’ve gotten from the rotation ranks third in MLB.
With a bullpen that’s still in development and a lineup that realistically would do well to stay in the top half of the league, the starters’ lack of blowups hasn’t gone unnoticed in the clubhouse.
“That makes seasons go a lot quicker, in all honesty,” Freese said. “Pitching is the most important thing for a club when you’re battling for a division. When you can give guys the ball, one through five, and they can give you some solid innings, it’s gonna benefit everybody.”
And with respect paid to Wednesday’s unexpected offensive output, Kuhl’s development will probably have more impact on the Pirates’ 2018 fortunes than how Freese, Rodríguez or Moroff perform off the bench.
Yes, position player depth is nice to have, but balance throughout a starting rotation might be the most important kind of depth a team can have. Although a hitter can have an influence on the outcome, it’ll rarely be as significant as a starter’s.
As is usually the case with Kuhl, his command wasn’t pinpoint, but his riding and sinking fastballs were good enough to get the occasional swing and miss, with the added bonus of setting up Rockies hitters for the curveballs and sliders that were to come.
That being said, Kuhl gave up three deep flyouts, a line-drive single and a long home run by Chris Iannetta in the first three innings, when he leaned heavily on his fastball. Kuhl was asked why he finished his outing better than he began it.
“I think it was the fastball command, because you throw the pitch down and away and the slider plays off of that,” he said. “We wanted to get in there with some heaters. When (Charlie) Blackmon came up that second time, that’s when we started introducing the curveball and throwing some off-speed. Obviously if you’re executing that fastball it makes it that much easier to not show all your weapons early.”
Kuhl wasn’t lying. After he caught Blackmon looking at a curveball to end the third, he struck out Iannetta and rookie Ryan McMahon with sharp sliders. The McMahon swinging K capped a 1-2-3 sixth inning.
Hurdle said Kuhl had some issues repeating his delivery in the early innings, joking that it took the tightly-wound righty about 90 pitches to loosen up sufficiently. In reality, though, Kuhl doesn’t have to be the second coming of Greg Maddux — or even Trevor Williams — to succeed with his lively stuff.
He might’ve given up more loud contact than he would’ve preferred, but he never shied away from the strike zone, either.
“That’s one of the reasons that I believe Chad’s had his success when he’s had it,” Hurdle said, “because those are the times he’s throwing more strikes, or more pitches that look like strikes out of the hand. … The problem comes when he’s not getting swings and he’s not getting called strikes. Then, they can swing, they can settle and they can look.”
On the other side, against a young Colorado starter whose control Hurdle characterized as “marginal,” the Pirates’ ‘B’ lineup delivered more than a passing grade. Yes, they lost a series for the first time in six opportunities, but there were some positive developments to come out of their sendoff game before a four-day weekend in Philadelphia.
“Coming off two losses, offense really didn’t do much,” said Adam Frazier, who went 3 for 5 in the leadoff spot. “Our pitching had been doing well the whole series, so to perform for them, that was nice. … Getting on the winning side of things is good for us and our morale in here.”
You know what else can lift spirits? Seeing Kuhl live up to the potential dictated by his powerful arm.
“He went right back out there and attacked the zone,” Frazier said. “That’s what we need from him, because his stuff plays.”