PITTSBURGH -- The back end of the Pirates bullpen created cause for concern in the eighth inning of their 6-4 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. Setup man Michael Feliz and closer Felipe Vazquez combined to allow three runs on two hits and four walks while recording only two
PITTSBURGH -- The back end of the Pirates bullpen created cause for concern in the eighth inning of their 6-4 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. Setup man Michael Feliz and closer Felipe Vazquez combined to allow three runs on two hits and four walks while recording only two outs, letting the Cardinals come from behind to win Sunday's game and the three-game series.
The bigger red flag went up less than an hour later, when Pittsburgh director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk revealed that Vazquez was being examined by team doctors after reporting discomfort in his left forearm. After blowing his third save in as many appearances on Sunday, Vazquez retreated to the Pirates dugout and rubbed his elbow.
Tomczyk said Vazquez noted that the discomfort -- the first forearm/elbow issue he's encountered in his tenure with the Pirates -- came about during his final two pitches, both 97.5-mph fastballs. The Pirates should have more information regarding his status on Monday. Vazquez was not available for comment after the game as he was being treated and evaluated.
"We're still early in the process," Tomczyk said.
Though Vazquez has given no previous indication that anything's wrong physically, his average fastball velocity has dropped this season from 98.4 to 96.8 mph, according to Statcast™. He's also using his slider less, as it's accounted for only 1.7 percent of his pitches compared to 8.5 percent last year.
The injury diagnosis was potentially tough news after a particularly difficult loss. The Pirates bullpen has been a strength for most of the last six weeks, routinely closing out games or keeping Pittsburgh's lineup close enough to rally back. Jameson Taillon delivered a strong, 6 1/3-inning start that showcased his new slider, and the Bucs were in position after six innings to deal undefeated Cards starter Miles Mikolas his first loss of the season.
"That was a tough one," Taillon said, shouldering the blame for not fielding a comebacker in the seventh. "The bullpen has been really good. Sometimes not all facets go together. Losing a series to an in-division team, especially the Cardinals, is tough when you had it."
Right-hander Edgar Santana, who has been excellent this season with runners on base, allowed two inherited runners to score in the seventh as St. Louis trimmed Pittsburgh's lead from three runs to one. Then Feliz and Vazquez continued to struggle in the eighth, and the Pirates lost for the first time this season when they led after seven innings.
Feliz has been scored upon in each of his last three appearances. Vazquez has recorded a blown save in three straight outings. They threw 33 pitches in the eighth inning, only 13 of them for strikes.
Feliz gave up a leadoff single to Jose Martinez and walked the next two batters, loading the bases. He remained in the game and struck out Tyler O'Neill, then manager Clint Hurdle emerged from Pittsburgh's dugout and summoned Vazquez to escape the jam.
"Two walks complicated things," Hurdle said. "He got the strikeout that we felt we needed to get to Vazquez. Unfortunately before that, we put ourselves in a very tricky position."
Pinch-hitter Harrison Bader knocked a game-tying bloop single to right field, then Vazquez walked in the go-ahead run on four pitches. Carson Kelly hit a grounder to shortstop Jordy Mercer, but the Pirates were only able to get one out on the play as Marcell Ozuna crossed the plate. Vazquez walked Greg Garcia on five pitches, reloading the bases and bringing an end to his outing.
"The command has been inconsistent, stating the obvious," Hurdle said of Vazquez. "He's doing the side work. He's watching video. We haven't seen him in this lane before as far as the inconsistent command, especially with the fastball. As a matter of fact, the command has been something that's really been in a good place. We'll keep hunting it, and so will he."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Cutting it close: Taillon leaned heavily on his new slider as he worked into the seventh inning for the first time since April 8, struck out six and allowed only five hits over 6 1/3 innings. He returned to pitch the seventh inning and struck out O'Neill with a slider. But his start came to an end after a pair of one-out singles by Kolten Wong -- the comebacker he later said he should field 100 times out of 100 -- and Munoz.
In came Santana, who served up a two-out, pinch-hit single to Jedd Gyorko. The ball had only a 35 percent hit probability, according to Statcast™, but it found the outfield grass to slice into Pittsburgh's lead.
"It's a safety net when you come out of the bullpen. When you put people in, if they give up runs, it's hard for everybody. That's the last thing they want to do," Hurdle said. "The ball that fell in for the knock had a lot of air under it, but we don't have anybody there. [Santana's] learning as well, there's no doubt."
The Pirates had been 23-0 this season when leading after seven innings. Santana hadn't given up a run in his last 12 appearances, and he had not allowed an inherited runner to score since April 2, Pittsburgh's fourth game of the season.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Taillon is always calm and composed on the mound, never prone to emotional outbursts. But he followed arguably his best pitch of the day to end the sixth inning, a 90.1-mph slider that Ozuna slapped on the ground to start an inning-ending double play, with a big fist pump and a shout before marching back to the Pirates dugout.
That slider was the key to Taillon's success on Sunday, accounting for 30 of the 85 pitches he threw. Taillon only recently introduced the pitch into his arsenal and discovered this iteration of it about a week ago. He and catcher Elias Diaz made it a focal point against the Cardinals, much like Diaz and Nick Kingham did in Kingham's near-perfect debut against the Cards earlier this season. Taillon's slider yielded seven swinging strikes, five called strikes and 10 balls in play -- including Ozuna's double-play grounder with runners on the corners.
"The idea when I introduced that pitch was to have it be something that can take pressure off my fastball in hitter's counts," Taillon said. "I was hoping one day it would morph into a strikeout pitch or an out pitch. I got a little bit of everything today."
HE SAID IT
"You give these young men an opportunity to pitch. To think they're going to pitch perfect, clean innings for an entire season, you're pretty naive. There's going to be challenges the league's going to throw at 'em, that hitters are going to throw at 'em." -- Hurdle, on Feliz and his young relievers
Right-hander Chad Kuhl will get the start in the series opener against the Cubs on Monday at PNC Park at 1:35 p.m. ET. Kuhl is coming off a start against the Reds in which he allowed one earned run and struck out six over six innings. Mike Montgomery will start for the Cubs.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.