This season, the Pirates have found success with two left-handed relievers who didn’t have much of a track record in the Majors. Pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage helped Sam Howard and Nik Turley harness their stuff, throw their best pitches more often and settle into high-leverage roles.
Austin Davis noticed.
“These guys are going out there, they're throwing their best stuff every pitch, and the results are going well for them,” Davis said on Sunday morning. “So I'm just going to try to follow what they're doing and hope it works out for me also."
Added to the active roster on Friday afternoon, Davis looked sharp in his Pirates debut on Saturday night. The lefty worked a perfect sixth inning with one strikeout on only 11 pitches, his fastball maxing out at 94.9 mph.
Davis was designated for assignment by the Phillies last month, and the Pirates were intrigued by his arsenal despite his 5.76 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 9.9 percent walk rate in 51 Major League games. Pittsburgh acquired him on Aug. 26 in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations and sent him to the alternate training site in Altoona, Pa.
There, Minor League pitching coach Joel Hanrahan told Davis to clear his mind and just pitch. That message was what Davis needed to hear, he said.
"Best version of me is just grabbing the ball, not thinking and just being fluid and throwing as hard as I can,” Davis said.
The 27-year-old has a high-spin fastball that plays well up in the zone and an arsenal that also includes a slider, curveball and changeup. He’s always had strikeout stuff, whiffing 65 batters in his 59 1/3 innings in the Majors, but walks and homers have been an issue in the past. Davis chalked that up to a lack of intensity and conviction behind what he was throwing.
“I’m getting past the ‘I’m still young in my career’ phase, but I’m still trying to learn every day. I’m trying to figure out what’s going to work best for my natural mentality, which is just attack the hitter with my best stuff,” Davis said. “It’s not manipulating the ball. It’s not trying to feel these different things. It’s just, ‘What can I grab and rip?’”
Manager Derek Shelton said the Pirates will take advantage of this opportunity to evaluate Davis. They’ve done well to turn relievers like Howard, Turley and Geoff Hartlieb into high-leverage options, so perhaps they can find similar success with Davis.
“When you’re a young player coming up, it’s like, ‘Man, I need an opportunity to jump in,’ and usually that comes with a guy not succeeding or whatever it is. That’s just part of the game. But in reality, when you’re in a bullpen that’s throwing really well, everyone feeds off that, and I think it’s better for everyone,” Davis said. “So to come over here and see these guys, they’ve been unbelievable the last few weeks, last month, so that made me really excited to join in and be a part and to be activated and throw well yesterday was fun. Hopefully I can just be another piece in that.”
Keller set for awaited return
Right-hander Mitch Keller, out since Aug. 1 due to a strained left oblique, will start the second game of the Pirates’ doubleheader against the Reds on Monday in Cincinnati. Cody Ponce will serve as the 29th man to start the first game.
The Pirates are excited to see the 24-year-old Keller back on the mound. He will likely be on a limited pitch count, presumably similar to the 50-pitch limit Joe Musgrove had in his first start coming off the IL.
“It’s good to get him back. We need to get him innings,” Shelton said. “It’s important to get him innings through the rest of the year, with the time he’s missed going into 2021. Getting him back on the mound is important to us.”
Around the horn
• Three days into a stretch of 19 games in 17 days, Shelton said all of the Pirates’ regulars will get a day off “at some point.” That day came on Sunday for Ke'Bryan Hayes and Erik González, who will likely start both games of Monday’s doubleheader. Kevin Newman moved to shortstop and JT Riddle started at third base.
• Reliever Kyle Crick retired the first two batters he faced in the seventh inning on Saturday night, then he lost his command, giving up a pair of singles before back-to-back walks that brought in a run. Concerningly, Crick’s average fastball velocity was still just 90.7 mph. Shelton said the Pirates aren’t going to worry about Crick’s velocity this season, however, believing it will return next year.
“The velocity tick-up, I think that’s probably going to be something we’re going to see in the offseason and into next Spring Training,” Shelton said. “The ability to execute a slider is going to be extremely important for him. Up until [Saturday], it’s actually been pretty good.”
• Josh Bell’s home run on Saturday night was the 17th of his career in Interleague Play, tying him with Pedro Álvarez, Brian Giles and Kevin Young for the third most in team history, behind Andrew McCutchen (20) and Starling Marte (18).