Before Friday’s game at Great American Ball Park, Pirates manager Derek Shelton was asked what made the Reds’ rotation so successful the first three weeks of the season. No National League starting staff entered the day with more strikeouts, and only the Cubs and Dodgers could claim a lower rotation ERA. The crux of his answer was quite simple.
“I think what you’re seeing is they have really good -- really good -- starting pitching,” Shelton said.
The Pirates saw it firsthand Friday night as right-hander Sonny Gray struck out 10 and only allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings. Jesse Winker homered twice off starter Chad Kuhl, and the Reds piled on four runs in the seventh inning as the Bucs were dealt an 8-1 defeat.
The competition won’t get much easier on Saturday night, with Trevor Bauer bringing his 0.93 ERA to the mound. For now, here are five takeaways from the Pirates’ 14th loss of the season.
1. Sonny shut down the lineup’s momentum
The Pirates thought they would break out of their collective early season slump this weekend, and the first two innings of Thursday’s game seemed to back up that belief. But their nine-run outburst was apparently just a short-lived spark, as the Bucs’ bats went quiet for the final seven innings of the series opener and then couldn’t mount a rally against Gray on Friday night.
Much of the credit goes to Gray, who is the Majors’ strikeout leader (with 45) for a reason. He made an in-game adjustment and attacked the Pirates with fastballs when he realized they were spitting on his curveball. Shelton defended the quality of the Bucs’ at-bats, noting that they ran into some bad luck and forced Gray to throw 110 pitches on the night.
“I was pleased with our approach, because we ran him into counts. We hit a couple balls hard right at people,” Shelton said. “But we saw Sonny Gray pretty close to his best tonight.”
In the end, though, it was a familiar story for the Pirates. The top four hitters in their lineup went a combined 1-for-15 with one walk and five strikeouts. Their .211 average and .615 OPS as a team both rank 29th in the Majors. One way or another, they need to find more consistent offense.
2. Kuhl has the stuff to start
It seems like some evaluators and fans have been in a hurry to push Kuhl into the bullpen, but every time out this season, he’s offered a reminder that he has a starting pitcher’s arsenal.
Kuhl continued to show he deserves a permanent spot in the rotation, striking out six and walking only one batter while allowing three runs on four hits -- including Winker’s two homers. Kuhl was also efficient, getting through five innings on 78 pitches in his longest outing since his 2018 Tommy John surgery.
“It's just another milestone that I can look back and be proud of and move forward from there,” Kuhl said. “Just building up, little by little. Hopefully [I’ll] be able to maintain a good pitch count, be able to go six next time and move on."
Kuhl has benefited from the Pirates’ newfound willingness to throw more breaking balls. Of the 26 sliders he threw, the Reds swung at 17 of them, whiffed on eight and took four for called strikes. His curveball was similarly effective, generating two whiffs and four called strikes.
“I thought he executed pitches,” Shelton said. “I thought he threw some really good breaking balls.”
3. Reynolds might be finding his timing
Bryan Reynolds was responsible for the Pirates’ only run of the night, launching his first home run of the season out to right-center field off Gray in the fourth inning. It was also Reynolds’ first RBI of the year.
Reynolds has been uncharacteristically ineffective at the plate to this point, batting just .183 with a .617 OPS. Shelton is hoping the swings he saw Friday were a turning point for the second-year switch-hitter.
“It looked like a fastball that was middle-in. To hit it where he hit it was a really good swing,” Shelton said. “Honestly, in his first at-bat, the ball he pulled way foul into the third deck was what got his contact point in the right spot. The rest of the night, he had pretty good at-bats. He hit a bullet in the ninth; he just hit it right at Galvis. I was very encouraged by his swings.”
4. Polanco’s shoulder looks healthy
With a runner on first and nobody out in the second inning, Josh VanMeter launched a fly ball to the warning track in right field. Gregory Polanco settled under it then fired a one-hop strike to Kevin Newman, who tagged out Nick Senzel.
There have been a lot of questions about Polanco’s surgically repaired left shoulder, and he’s struggled to find his timing at the plate after missing time due to a positive COVID-19 test. But that throw backed up Polanco’s assertion that, physically, he’s close to full strength.
“He’s playing hard. His swing’s going to come. He’s going to do things,” Shelton said. “But it was nice to see him make a good throw.”
5. Tucker is learning the outfield on the fly
The game got away from the Pirates in the seventh when Nick Castellanos crushed a three-run homer off Chris Stratton -- and just over Cole Tucker’s outstretched glove.
Tucker, a natural shortstop, has been an outfielder for less than a month. But he was still upset with himself for not making the play, so much so that he asked Pittsburgh’s analytics staff afterward if he had any realistic chance of robbing Castellanos’ homer.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever really had a play like that,” Tucker said. “So I was obviously really frustrated I didn’t save it, but I felt good about the route that I took, and I felt good about the effort and the energy on the play.”
Tucker’s transition to the outfield has already come with highlights, like the sliding grab he made during an exhibition game in Cleveland, and learning moments, like the ball that sailed over his head in Minnesota earlier this season. The Pirates saw his leaping effort as a sign of progress.
“The fact that he got to the wall and got up, yeah, he’s gonna rob some homers,” Shelton said. “He’s gonna take balls away.”
Left-hander Steven Brault will rejoin the rotation as a full-fledged starter when the Pirates continue their four-game series against the Reds on Saturday night at Great American Ball Park. Brault has only given up one hit and three walks while striking out six over seven scoreless innings as a starting pitcher this season. He will start opposite Bauer. First pitch is set for 6:10 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV.