Brubaker shows mettle, stuff in 'W' over Crew

April 17th, 2021

cruised through the first two innings on Friday night vs. the Brewers, retiring six in a row. Then, he hit a bump in the third and ended up in a bases-loaded standoff with Travis Shaw.

That’s when Brubaker was put to the test. He talked all this spring about wanting to trust his stuff, and now, he was forced to do so with the lead on the line and the crowd at American Family Field coming alive.

“Once I got the sign, it's just I'm going right after him,” Brubaker said. “[I said,] ‘Here's my best fastball. What are you going to do with it?'

“Luckily, he swung.”

Brubaker let out a scream, and he rode that big moment to the best start of his young career in the Pirates’ 6-1 win over the Brewers.

Brubaker barely had to break a sweat out the gate, striking out two batters in a nine-pitch first inning, then filling up the zone and getting weak contact from the middle of the Brewers’ order in a five-pitch second. It marked the first time in nearly a decade that a Pirates starter was that efficient; Jeff Karstens required only 14 pitches to get through two innings against the Giants on April 28, 2011.

But the third inning was the real test for Brubaker. He had trusted his stuff when the bases were empty. Now, he had to trust his stuff with the bases loaded after a leadoff double and two hit batsmen.

The sophomore Major Leaguer had no easy out in Shaw, who entered the game with three homers in the young season. The Brewers slugger gave Brubaker his hardest out of the first two innings with a five-pitch at-bat in the first, but he made it even more difficult in the third with a nine-pitch battle.

“He’s pesky,” Brubaker said of Shaw. “He fouled off some good pitches, and there I was just wanting to go after him. He made me waste a lot of bullets in that first AB, then it was just making sure I didn’t go down that rabbit hole again. Just wanted to go right after him.”

So after working Shaw up and down to change his eye levels, what did Brubaker throw on the ninth pitch? A 93 mph fastball right down the middle that Shaw whiffed on.

“He went right after him, and you’re talking about a guy who is hitting third in their lineup and is a good big league hitter,” manager Derek Shelton said. “There was some energy in this ballpark. They were after it at that point, and for him to step up and execute pitches -- and execute pitches right there -- was a really good sign of maturity for [Brubaker].”

It wouldn’t be the last time the two would duel in a big spot. Brubaker got Shaw to ground into a forceout out in the fifth inning with two on in his final test of the night, though at that point, he had three more runs to work with thanks to a two-run triple from Adam Frazier and an RBI double from Bryan Reynolds.

“That ball was hit really hard,” Brubaker said of Shaw’s forceout. “But it was on the ground, and I knew once it was on the ground, we had an opportunity to field and throw him out.”

Aided by a great throw from catcher Jacob Stallings to catch Avisaíl García stealing in the sixth, Brubaker became the first Pirates starter to complete six innings this season, and he’s drawing eyes with a solid 1.76 ERA through three starts.

One of the keys to his success, especially on Friday, has been the command with his slider, which he throws more than any other offering. Twenty-three of his 33 sliders went for strikes, and most of the sliders that were balls set up other pitches to be effective. The only wild slider was a back-footer to Jackie Bradley Jr. which hit, well, his back foot.

“I think it’s the best we’ve seen it consistently throughout outings,” Shelton said. “We’ve seen it for an inning or two or a stretch of one time through the order, but throughout the entire appearance tonight, his slider was really effective.”

And as we saw on Friday, even though he’s only 14 games into his Major League career, Brubaker is playing with an edge. Milwaukee's Jace Peterson exchanged some words with the right-hander on a groundout, and Brubaker gave some right back. In the fifth, Brubaker struck out trying to move runners over on a bunt, and the frustration was visible heading back to the dugout.

Not to mention the surge of emotion on his big third-inning strikeout. Shelton thinks it can be a weapon for a pitcher who is beginning to make a name for himself, as well as a next step in his growth.

“I think there are a lot of good Major League pitchers who show emotion and energy,” Shelton said. “I think it’s just making sure you channel the emotions toward the right things.”