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Kuhl shows no rust in impressive return

Righty missed more than 2 years after Tommy John surgery
@adamdberry
July 28, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- With a runner on first base and nobody out in the fifth inning Monday night at PNC Park, Chad Kuhl fired a 95.8 mph sinker toward catcher Jacob Stallings. Eric Sogard hit it weakly to second baseman Adam Frazier, who tagged Manny Piña and threw the ball to

PITTSBURGH -- With a runner on first base and nobody out in the fifth inning Monday night at PNC Park, Chad Kuhl fired a 95.8 mph sinker toward catcher Jacob Stallings. Eric Sogard hit it weakly to second baseman Adam Frazier, who tagged Manny Piña and threw the ball to Josh Bell to complete the double play.

Kuhl clapped his right hand into his glove and strode toward the Pirates’ dugout on the third-base side. He nodded at Stallings, then turned around and smiled as he walked back to the mound. Did he lose track of the number of outs?

“Uhhh,” Kuhl said afterward, grinning. “Maybe.”

To be fair, it had been a while for Kuhl. But that was the only time it seemed that way during his first Major League outing in 762 days. The right-hander looked sharp and silenced the Brewers’ bats with sliders as he struck out four over 3 2/3 scoreless innings during Pittsburgh’s 6-5 loss to Milwaukee.

“It’s just really cool to be back out there. I’m thankful for everybody who has invested the time in me, the trainers, all the staff, coaches, to get me back to playing,” Kuhl said Monday night. “I can’t thank my family enough for their awesome support through this whole thing. It’s been a long journey. I’m just super thankful to be back.”

It was Kuhl’s first appearance in 25 months after undergoing and recovering from Tommy John surgery in September 2018. His teammates were likely just as thrilled as he was by his emotional, exciting and successful return to the mound.

Kuhl's fastball touched 96 mph and sat around 94, which is roughly in line with his pre-surgery performance. He used five pitches, but the slider that helped him get to the Majors four years ago -- “old reliable,” as he called it -- was his best offering. Kuhl threw 23 sliders among his 55 pitches; the Brewers took six for strikes and whiffed on six more.

As planned, Kuhl followed left-hander Steven Brault in the Pirates’ first tandem start of the season. Brault pitched two scoreless innings and likely would have thrown another if not for a 102-minute rain delay in the middle of the second inning. Kuhl took the mound when the game resumed, which gave him a chance to warm up like a starting pitcher rather than running in from the bullpen like a reliever.

The Brewers hit into two loud outs in Kuhl’s first inning, then he worked around three singles and two walks before giving way to reliever Chris Stratton with two outs in the sixth.

"I think it's a credit to him, a testament to hard work,” manager Derek Shelton said. “Could not have been more pleased with how he threw the ball."

At times during his rehabilitation, with the slow progression back to throwing and an even slower buildup on the mound, nights like Monday felt a long way away. But as Kuhl walked into the dugout -- for real this time -- that part of his journey was officially complete.

“It’s awesome to see him back out there throwing fuzz. His breaking balls are disgusting,” Brault said. “Just watching him compete. We call him Chet, because he gets crazy on the mound, and it’s really cool to see him back fully in his element, and I’m so happy for him.

“He’s clearly shown that he’s ready to be back.”

Around the horn
• Shelton said he is confident that left fielder Bryan Reynolds will emerge from his season-opening slump. Reynolds entered Tuesday’s game 0-for-13 with four walks to begin the year, an uncharacteristic hitless streak considering how consistent he was as a rookie.

"I think the most important thing about Bryan Reynolds is he was born as a hitter,” Shelton said. “He hit in Little League. He hit in high school. He hit in college. He hit in the Minor Leagues. He hit last year. He's going to hit. He's had a couple rough games. When you have a couple rough games at the beginning of the season, it gets magnified a little bit, and with the 60-game season, people will magnify it even more.”

• Gregory Polanco was out of the lineup on Tuesday, as expected, after returning from the injured list on Monday as Pittsburgh’s designated hitter. Shelton said the Pirates are planning to have Polanco start Wednesday’s series finale, and he’ll have a built in day off as the team travels to Chicago on Thursday.

Shelton also gave veteran center fielder Jarrod Dyson, infielder/outfielder José Osuna and catcher Jacob Stallings a day out of the lineup after Monday’s 11-inning game.

• Shelton said the Pirates do not have anything new to report on closer Keone Kela, who missed all of Summer Camp and remains on the injured list after testing positive for COVID-19.

• The Pirates used a four-man outfield on Monday night, something Shelton said they’d do back in Spring Training. With Justin Smoak batting against Michael Feliz to lead off the ninth inning, second baseman Adam Frazier moved out to left-center field. But Smoak, who tends to put the ball in the air, wound up smacking a ground-ball single through the right side.

Smoak advanced to second on a passed ball and wound up scoring the first run in Milwaukee’s game-tying rally.

“We would have caught the ground ball in the outfield regardless of if … we were in a normal situation or if Frazier was standing in left center,” Shelton said. “The most important part of that is just identifying the guys that we think that we should do that against, and who the pitcher is, and finding the matchup.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.