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Notes: Riddle's hustle; Kela in midseason form

@adamdberry
February 24, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Throughout the first two weeks of Spring Training, manager Derek Shelton has preached the importance of the Pirates being aggressive on the basepaths this season. If you want to see what that looks like, go back and watch the way JT Riddle played during Pittsburgh’s 8-4 loss

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Throughout the first two weeks of Spring Training, manager Derek Shelton has preached the importance of the Pirates being aggressive on the basepaths this season.

If you want to see what that looks like, go back and watch the way JT Riddle played during Pittsburgh’s 8-4 loss to Detroit on Sunday afternoon at LECOM Park.

Signed by the Pirates to serve as a super-utility man, Riddle led off the first inning with an 11-pitch walk. That -- “the kind of hitter he can be,” Shelton said -- might have been enough to call it a good day for the former Marlins shortstop. But when Colin Moran grounded out into the Tigers’ shift, Riddle quickly noticed that nobody was covering third base, hustled to take the extra 90 feet and eventually scored on Will Craig’s sacrifice fly.

“One thing I’ve always tried to work hard on is baserunning,” Riddle said. “You can win a lot of games because of baserunning.”

Riddle took advantage of another Tigers shift in the second inning, hitting a bloop single where the shortstop normally would have been standing, but it was his heads-up approach on the bases that stood out most. Riddle also legged out a triple in the fourth.

The Pirates don’t have a particularly power-packed lineup, so moments like that could be necessary to create offense as the season rolls on. That’s one reason Shelton and first-base coach Tarrik Brock have advised an aggressive approach.

“We’ve got to be aggressive. Being aggressive on the basepaths, you’re going to manufacture runs that way -- getting that extra base, taking those extra bags,” Riddle said. “[Brock] preaches a lot of energy on the bases. That’s how we’re going to be as a team.”

That’s also going to help Riddle make the team. The Pirates targeted Riddle because of his slick middle-infield defense, his baserunning, his left-handed bat off the bench and his ability to play the outfield. Riddle has mostly worked in the infield so far this spring, but he said he’ll add outfield work to his plate as Opening Day approaches.

Game notes

• Closer Keone Kela looked just about ready for Opening Day in his Spring Training debut, striking out three and issuing one walk in a scoreless fourth inning. Kela’s fastball touched 96 mph, and he flummoxed Detroit’s hitters with big-breaking curveballs. He started off Christin Stewart, the first hitter he faced, with a pair of swing-and-miss curveballs.

“His stuff was nasty,” Shelton said. “What we’ve seen out of Keone is the ball can jump out of his hand. He went breaking ball-breaking ball to start that you don’t see Feb. 23. You don’t see that from very many guys, and that just shows how elite his stuff is.”

• Shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz showed off his power on Sunday, blasting an RBI double off the left-field wall in the second inning. Cruz came around to score on Riddle’s bloop single, another piece of heads-up baserunning that Shelton pointed out after the game.

Cruz was ranked as the Pirates' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline last season.

Gregory Polanco appeared in a game for the first time since last July 14, when he was rehabbing his shoulder in Triple-A, and went 0-for-2 with a walk. Polanco served as the designated hitter on Sunday and will do so again in his next game, then he’ll make his way out to right field.

“Him going through a game healthy, getting three at-bats, being aggressive, that was what we were looking for,” Shelton said. “The aggression of his swings was something that stood out to me and something that stood out, really, in a positive way.”

• Reliever Richard Rodríguez gave up one run on three hits in the fifth inning against the Tigers. Lefty relief candidate Sam Howard allowed a run and walked three, while fellow southpaw Robbie Erlin permitted three runs on three hits and a walk in one inning.

• Reliever Kyle Crick threw 20 pitches while working one inning in a simulated game on Sunday.

Split-squad report
The Pirates’ other squad, managed by bench coach Don Kelly, lost to the Phillies, 4-3, on Sunday at Spectrum Field in Clearwater.

Right-hander Trevor Williams gave up four runs in the first inning before working a clean second, throwing 44 pitches (21 strikes) overall. Reliever Nick Burdi touched 99 mph and recorded two outs in his first appearance since April 22. Shortstop Kevin Newman went 1-for-3, and Jose Osuna finished 2-for-3 with an RBI.

Up next
The Pirates will hit the road on Monday for their first night game of the year, and they’ll find a familiar face on the mound at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole, freshly signed to a $324 million contract, will start opposite the Pirates’ Chris Stratton at 6:35 p.m. ET.

Edgar Santana, Yacksel Rios, Luis Escobar, Nik Turley, Nick Mears and Geoff Hartlieb are also scheduled to pitch for Pittsburgh. The audio broadcast will be available on KDKA-FM and the Pirates Radio Network.

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