PITTSBURGH — Baseball is a team sport, but not necessarily a synergistic one.
A batting lineup can run hot or cold, but that has little impact on how well arms and gloves can limit the opposition. There can easily be a disconnect between scoring and defending, perhaps more so than any other team sport.
Even in football, with its natural separations between offense, defense and special teams, success (or failure) on one side of the ball can affect field position for the other side. Not so in baseball, where the game state resets every half-inning.
But that doesn’t account for the physiological effect that seeing teammates do well can have on the flip side of things.
“It’s definitely fun baseball,” Josh Bell said after Tuesday’s 7-0 win over the White Sox, in which the Pirates led 6-0 after two innings. “Once things start rolling, you let out that sigh of relief earlier. You score a couple of runs early but you kinda coast.
“Especially the way Trevor (Williams) was pitching, it takes the pressure off you and allows you to do more damage at the plate.”
As Bell alludes, this phenomenon can work both ways. Not that Williams’ zero-walk outing Tuesday was a direct correlation to the Pirates getting him a bundle of runs early, but maybe he pitches more carefully without that margin for error.
“It opens up the first pitch to hitters,” Williams said after firing seven scoreless innings for his finest start of the young season. “You don’t have to be as fine with it. When their starting pitcher has a long inning, you’re almost at a firm zero percent that the first hitter will swing at the first pitch.”
That’s the practical effect of working with a sizable lead, but Williams made sure to add that there’s something to it from a purely mental standpoint.
“Other than that, it’s nice to get some runs on the board and not pitching like your hair’s on fire,” he said. “(Not) pitching for a shutout … you’re OK giving up a couple of runs here or there.”
During their current hot stretch — eight victories in 10 games heading into Thursday’s series-opener against the Padres at PNC Park — the Pirates have been able to settle in for three cruise-control wins.
Jordy Mercer said that, over the course of a six-month season, a player would be wise to treasure those games and make the most of them, regardless of which position he mans.
“Anytime you can score a bunch of runs, it gives a (pitcher) some breathing room,” Mercer said. “Whoever’s out there can throw their game and relax and not be so, constantly pressed the whole time. It allows everybody to relax and play the game. Just go out and have fun and enjoy it.”
Tuesday’s blowout also provided a benefit to an unlikely candidate: Righty reliever Richard Rodríguez, who had his worst appearance of an otherwise promising season Sunday against the Giants. Taking over for starter Iván Nova, Rodríguez allowed three hits and an earned run, to say nothing of the two inherited runners that scored on Nick Hundley’s three-run homer.
With Williams exiting after seven innings Tuesday and the Pirates holding a seven-run lead, there was no better time to get Rodríguez back on the bump. The 28-year-old rookie responded with a scoreless, two-strikeout ninth to end the game.
“That’s always on the agenda,” Clint Hurdle said Wednesday morning. “It’s a topic of discussion whenever a reliever gets marked. The ninth inning is tricky, because sometimes you don’t want to run a guy out there when it’s a close game, because then you’ve got to take them out. Sometimes guys with less experience, they’re just looking to get the ball. That’s a thought always, when can we find an opportunity to get him the ball, sooner than later, just to relieve the anxiety or whatever it is.”
From the outside, baseball can seem a leisurely pursuit, but performance-related nerves are constantly vibrating below the surface for most players, if not all of them.
Any opportunity to remove some stress should be seized, in other words. And with the way this lineup is clicking, a pitching staff trying to get over a few wobbles can certainly benefit.
“If you get some runs early and come out of the gate hot,” Mercer said, “it can give the pitcher a chance to relax and take a deep breath and go after some guys you maybe wouldn’t go after. Maybe keep his pitch count down and stay in the game.”