JT Brubaker gave the Pirates the kind of start they needed Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. But Luis Castillo delivered the kind of dominant performance their struggling lineup couldn’t handle.
The Pirates have lost eight consecutive games, their longest skid of the season, after a winless road trip through Kansas City and Cincinnati that ended with a 1-0 defeat against the Reds. It marked their first 1-0 loss in Cincinnati since Aug. 19, 1999. Pittsburgh's 14-34 record is the franchise’s second-worst mark through 48 games in the modern era, better than only the 1952 club.
“We pitched really well. We just didn’t score,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “You’ve got to score to win, and we didn’t score. I thought our pitching was outstanding.”
Indeed, pitching was not the Pirates’ problem in their final game against the Reds this season. They combined to allow five hits and one walk while striking out nine, but it wasn’t enough to keep them from finishing 3-7 on the year against a suddenly contending Cincinnati club.
Brubaker breezed through four innings on 63 pitches, holding the Reds to just one infield single and a walk while striking out four. He gave up three straight two-out singles in the fifth, however, allowing the Reds to break the scoreless tie.
Brubaker returned to start the sixth, but he didn’t finish it. After Nick Castellanos doubled and moved to third on a groundout by Joey Votto, Shelton summoned left-hander Sam Howard from the bullpen. Howard did his job, striking out pinch-hitter Tyler Stephenson and retiring Mike Moustakas to keep the Pirates’ deficit at one.
For Brubaker, it was a step in the right direction after a seven-run outing last Wednesday at PNC Park. He relied mostly on his sinker and slider, though he used everything in his arsenal as he worked 5 1/3 innings on 92 pitches.
"It was very enjoyable just going out there trying to make sure I wasn't the guy to give up that one run. Unfortunately, I was,” Brubaker said. “Just to see who gave up the run first was the enjoyable part of it. The battle between two starting pitchers, in my opinion, is the best part of baseball. Everybody wants to see the long ball, but I think a pitchers' duel is a lot more fun and enjoyable."
The Pirates haven’t seen too many of those duels this year, as Brubaker’s outing was just their 23rd start of at least five innings in 48 games. Their rotation has made four six-inning starts on the year and only two quality starts; before this season, the lowest quality-start total through a team’s first 48 games was eight by the 1995 Twins.
“In all honesty, it's just been one of those years for us,” said left-hander Steven Brault, who will start Thursday’s series opener against the Cardinals at PNC Park. “I haven't been able to go deep in games because I've been getting deep into counts, not finishing people early enough. I think that it will be a focus not only the rest of the season, but also in the offseason. Whatever mentally we have to change, physically we have to change, to make sure that next year we'll be more consistent with it."
Even though he didn’t complete six innings, Brubaker pitched well enough to win, if only the Pirates could have mustered any sort of run support against Castillo. The Reds right-hander baffled the Bucs with his changeup, striking out 10 while allowing only three singles and a walk over seven innings.
“I thought the changeup was that good. He was really good,” Shelton said. “With that [fastball] velo, that makes it extremely difficult. He didn’t make very many mistakes. The mistakes he made, we hit into the ground. We hit a couple balls hard that we hit right into the ground, at people.”
But the Pirates also struggled to put the ball in play all series. In 32 innings against the Reds, they struck out 45 times. On Wednesday night, they didn’t get a runner past first base. There’s no denying that strikeouts are on the rise throughout baseball, but this year’s Pittsburgh club is on pace to post the highest strikeout rate in modern-era franchise history.
“You’ve got to be aggressive, but it has to be aggressive with contact. Part of it is our approach, 100 percent, not to shy away from that,” Shelton said. “And part of it’s, we’ve faced really good pitching the last four days even going back to the last day in K.C. [Brad] Keller threw the ball really well. Not only is it aggressive, but we have to have more contact to make things happen.”
The Pirates have had the Majors’ least productive lineup this season, slashing .218/.281/.344 with 173 runs scored. But their offense has struggled on an even greater historical level.
The Bucs entered the day with the sixth-lowest single-season wRC+, an all-encompassing offensive metric that accounts for era and ballpark factors, since 1900. The only teams with a lower wRC+ than these 2020 Pirates: the 1952 Bucs, the 1909 Boston Doves, the 1963 Mets, the 1920 Athletics and this year’s Rangers.
What can they do in their final 12 games to turn things around?
“I was there a couple weeks ago. It seems like every out feels like two or three, and you’re searching for hits instead of searching for quality at-bats,” said Josh Bell, who’s now on a 10-game hitting streak. “But all it takes is one to turn things around, and hopefully that starts tomorrow.”