PITTSBURGH — In Joe Musgrove’s second-to-last rehab start in the minor leagues, he had to throw an extra ‘inning’ in the Indianapolis Indians’ bullpen at Victory Field because he was so efficient in his prescribed five frames.
There was no such consideration Friday night at PNC Park for Musgrove’s briskly spectacular Pirates debut, because this was for real. Building up the big righty’s arm is no longer the first priority; results are.
Removing Musgrove after just 67 pitches might seem overly protective on the surface, but when we consider the man threw seven scoreless innings at the Cardinals, Clint Hurdle could be excused for showing a little caution.
“I mean, my goodness,” Hurdle told reporters after the Pirates’ 8-1 win. “Risk versus reward. You gotta factor that in at some point in time. We just got this guy back. I think there was more in the tank. We talked about it.”
But if Hurdle pumped the brakes on Musgrove’s outing, there will be no holding back justifiable thoughts that the former Astro could be just what this Pirates rotation needs.
In his first MLB milieu since Game 6 of the 2017 World Series, the 6-foot-5 Musgrove looked downright domineering on the mound, striking out seven, walking none and throwing 50 strikes against just 17 balls.
“Honestly just to be out there was really exciting,” a beaming Musgrove said to the first media gathering at his locker stall of the season. “It’s a new group of guys I’m with so I wanted to show them what I got. It’s exactly how I wanted to come out of the chute. I had some time to get myself ready.”
Musgrove, 25, used all five of his pitches — four-seam fastball, two-seamer, cutter, slider, changeup — to productive effect. The extensiveness of his repertoire might be the most promising thing about him, but the control over said weapons allowed him to toy with St. Louis at times.
“He pounded the strike zone,” Hurdle said. “If the first pitch wasn’t a strike, the second one was. … It was an extremely solid mix with just enough separation of velocity. It made it really hard to barrel up.”
As if the pitching itself wasn’t enough, Musgrove himself squared up a pitch by the previously dominant Cardinals starter John Gant, shooting a fastball through the hole between first and second to lead off what became a three-run sixth for the Pirates.
“I’ve been waiting for that thing for a while,” Musgrove said of his first major-league hit. That achievement quickly blossomed into the game’s first run when he got a good read on Josh Harrison’s double to right-center and sprinted the final 270 feet to the plate.
The night wasn’t perfect, unlike that aforementioned rehab start in Indy, or Nick Kingham’s first seven innings against these same Cardinals right here a month ago.
On two occasions, St. Louis led off an inning with a double, but both times Musgrove showed that he could dial up the swing-and-miss stuff situationally, getting key strikeouts with his changeup and slider to strand runners in scoring position.
“It was amazing to see him out there in a real game,” Francisco Cervelli said on the field after the game to AT&T Sports Net, not long after he chipped in a three-run double in the seventh.
“This guy’s intense,” Cervelli continued. “He’s going to give you everything he has.”
It was the kind of comprehensive start rarely seen this season from a Pirates rotation that still includes a few question marks. Neal Huntington and Hurdle had been insistent that Musgrove get a chance to start games before they’d entertain the option of placing him in the bullpen, where he finished so well for Houston last year.
For at least one outstanding night, the Pirates’ decision was justified, even after a two-month convalescence to get a balky throwing shoulder healed and strengthened.
“He handled it so professionally,” Hurdle said of Musgrove’s disposition since spring. “Opening day was just pushed back two months for him. I thought he had an extreme walk of confidence, a delivery of confidence tonight. It was Joe’s night.”
Musgrove said he leaned on Cervelli for inside knowledge on several Cardinals hitters he’d never faced before.
“I told ‘Cervy,’ ‘Here’s what I got, I’m going to follow your lead tonight,'” Musgrove said. “He challenged me to use the heater a couple of times, so I saved a couple of sliders. Just moving the fastball in and out and going upstairs a few times.”
The game-calling appeared solid. The location seemed even better, as did Musgrove’s poise with runners on base. Of course, when a pitcher has command over as many pitches as Musgrove did, composure should come naturally.
Upon review of Musgrove’s pitch chart, there were a few offerings over the heart of the plate, but enough variety to keep hitters from pigeonholing anything.
“Musgrove, he shoved,” said Austin Meadows. “He was establishing inside to guys. He was on point and it was fun to watch.”
It’s a stretch to call Friday’s win a laugher, since there were no runs on the board through five innings, but at least the Pirates (28-22) got to relax somewhat toward the end of their fourth victory in as many tries against the Cardinals (26-22).
Friday marked the start of a stretch of 10 consecutive games against either St. Louis or Chicago, the two teams tangling with the Pirates for second place in the National League Central. Pittsburgh had lost five of six coming in, so getting that elusive fifth starter on the mound at long last was quite timely.
It’s one game, but Musgrove could easily be the reinforcement most needed by a club that’s been carried more by its lineup and bullpen in recent weeks.
“I’m not going to overcook this thing,” Hurdle said. “He pitched fantastic. I thought he threw some balls right where he wanted to throw some balls.
“Big night, fun night for him.”