PITTSBURGH -- Any other year, JT Brubaker’s parents likely would have made arrangements to be at PNC Park on Thursday. The right-hander is going to make his first Major League start against the Twins, the moment he’s spent his career working for.
But with attendance limited to players, staff and a handful of cardboard cutouts, the Brubakers will have to settle for a day off of work with the game on TV as their son takes the mound at 1:35 p.m. ET on Thursday.
“They’ll be cheering. That’s what they’ve been doing: just watching the games at home, just hanging out,” Brubaker said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s all they can do.”
Brubaker is joining Pittsburgh’s rotation out of necessity, replacing the injured Mitch Keller. But he earned this opportunity by pitching well throughout his time in the Pirates’ Minor League system, and he has looked outstanding in two relief appearances so far this season.
Brubaker struck out four in two scoreless innings in his Major League debut in St. Louis on July 26. He returned to the mound in relief of Keller on Saturday and struck out three Cubs while allowing only one hit and a walk over three scoreless innings. Given his previous workload, manager Derek Shelton said it is reasonable to expect that Brubaker will pitch four or five innings on Thursday.
The Pirates named Brubaker their Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2018, when he posted a 2.81 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 154 innings over 28 starts between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. That was the year, he said, when he learned to trust his stuff and attack hitters with his best pitches. He carried that mentality through an injury-shortened 2019 season and into this year, when he’s introduced more high four-seam fastballs and diving curveballs into his arsenal.
“I’m just going to go out there and do the same thing I’ve been doing on the mound, just throwing competitive pitches and going right after hitters,” Brubaker said.
With Nick Burdi placed on the 45-day injured list on Wednesday, the Pirates filled his spot on the active roster by activating super-utility man JT Riddle from the 10-day IL. Riddle began the season on the shelf with a right abdomen strain, but he was able to work out at the club’s alternate training site for the past five days.
Shelton said Riddle will bounce around the infield and outfield. He’s capable of playing shortstop, second base and third base, and he spent some time in center field last year with the Marlins.
After their 5-2 loss to the Twins on Wednesday night, the Pirates optioned infielder/outfielder José Osuna and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the club’s alternate training site in Altoona, Pa. The team was facing a noon ET deadline on Thursday to trim its roster from 30 to 28. With Brubaker set to start followed by the tandem-starter duo led by Steven Brault, Shelton said they felt a need to keep extra relievers on the active roster for the time being.
“Especially with Bru starting and then we still have the piggyback, we need the innings,” Shelton said. “When you have guys that are optionable, sometimes moves like these happen.”
Ponce on alternate training site
After saying Monday that some players at the club’s alternate training site “are going through the motions because they don’t want to be there or they just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pirates right-hander Cody Ponce clarified his comments about the satellite camp.
“Words are words and I said what I said, and I wish I had never said those words because it’s not true,” Ponce said Wednesday. “Everybody down there has been working their butts off. What came out was incorrect.”
Ponce began the season at the club’s alternate training site, joined the taxi squad to start the last road trip, joined the active roster on Sunday and made his Major League debut in the 11th inning of the Pirates’ 2-1 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“Everybody down there, from the training staff to the coaches to all the players, has been working their butts off making sure that they are ready for instances just like mine,” Ponce said.
Pittsburgh’s recent pitching injuries have made it more difficult to stage game-like scenarios for the young players who remain there. They go through a typical workday, with pitchers playing catch and hitters taking batting practice in the afternoon before they face each other around 7 p.m. ET. Then everyone goes their separate ways, returning to their apartments, only to show up the next day and do it all over again. In that way, Ponce admitted that the Altoona camp can be a mental grind.
“It is a tough situation to be in. You aren’t facing a different team every three or four days. You’re facing the same guys, and you’re going through the same routine,” Ponce said. “You don’t get the bright lights and the fun joy and the travel and everything like that. You have to go to the same field, see the same faces and do the same thing every day.
"Everybody’s been working their butts off, and they haven’t stopped. Everybody wants an opportunity to come up here and help the team in any way they can.”