I’ve been waiting for this game for three weeks.
It was one thing to watch 4/5ths of the rotation struggle and know that there was talent in AAA that might be able to help while the Cubs got off to a historic start and the Pirates faced down the potential of another Wild Card Game, but it’s been something else entirely to do that while the season crashes and burns around them and they’re suddenly facing the prospect of the first playoff-less season since 2012.
What I’ve wanted the Pirates to do since they fell into this funk in early June is to just try something different, and tonight, they finally called Chad Kuhl up to make his first big league start and sent Juan Nicasio to the bullpen. As it turns out, Kuhl probably isn’t the biggest story from this game, but he (and Nicasio) did play a role in getting the Pirates their third straight win over the Dodgers and their first series win since their double-header win over the Mets on June 7th.
Let’s start with Kuhl and the pitchers. Kuhl’s control was a bit erratic and he didn’t do much more than pound fastball after fastball (60 of his 82 pitches were fastballs), but he threw that fastball 95-97 mph, it had some Charlie Morton On His Best Days sinking action, he missed some bats, and besides Justin Turner’s homer and run-scoring double, he gave the Pirates five really effective innings tonight. It certainly wasn’t a bad first start, considering the nerves that a 23-year old must feel when making his debut against Clayton Kershaw on ESPN. I’m interested to see more of him, which is more than I can say of the guy he replaced in the rotation.
The bigger news, though, is that Kuhl left with a 4-3 lead after five innings, and the bullpen threw four no-hit innings of relief to hold that lead. Juan Nicasio’s return from the restricted list was a nine pitch 1-2-3 inning, AJ Schugel breezed two perfect innings, and Melancon nailed down the save without incident. This is how the Pirates are supposed to win games; get the starters through five or six, and shorten the game. Nicasio and Schugel are probably the keys to that on the bullpen side; we know that Feliz, Watson, and Melancon can get outs, but they can’t pitch every night. Nicasio has been effective as a middle-relief swing-man in the past, and his struggles this year have often come the second time through lineups and against lefties, two things he can avoid as a reliever (it should be noted that he faced two lefties tonight and gave up some hard-hit balls, but everything was hit right at fielders). Schugel’s got some surprisingly good peripherals though he doesn’t quite have the ERA to match them and, like Nicasio, could probably improve with the right matchups. One night doesn’t make a pattern, of course, but it could provide a blueprint to what a better (and more successful) Pirate team looks like.
Of course, the biggest story here is how the Pirates wore down Kershaw for a four-run second inning, which provided all of their runs and the victory. The Pirates managed to load the bases with one out when Josh Harrison and Kershaw-killer Chris Stewart singled, then Sean Rodriguez (Sean Rodriguez!) drew the eighth walk that Kershaw has issued all year. Kuhl battled away for an incredible eight-pitch strikeout with five foul balls in his first big league at-bat, and then Adam Frazier delivered what was probably the most important hit of the night when he dumped a 1-2 Kershaw fastball into left field for an RBI single. It’s hard to overstate how big a left-handed-hitting rookie in his fourth career plate appearance (in a game in which he didn’t start, but came in as an injury replacement for Jordy Mercer) getting a two-out/two-strike RBI off of the best left-handed pitcher of this generation is. Frazier’s hit became even bigger when David Freese jumped on Kershaw’s next pitch and emptied the bases with a double to right-center.
Those four runs were all the Pirates got off of Kershaw, but they chased him after six and hung his worst start of 2016 on him, and Kuhl and the bullpen made sure those four were enough. It’s only one game by itself, but this gives the Pirates a three-game winning streak, and it feels like something they can build on.
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