Extending this season beyond Sunday’s finale wouldn’t dramatically change who the Pirates are. They wouldn’t suddenly transform from a team with the worst record in the Majors into a playoff contender, as even manager Derek Shelton admitted Saturday afternoon.
“But I think our record would indicate that we’re getting better,” Shelton said before the Pirates’ 8-0 win over the Indians on Saturday night at Progressive Field.
That’s always been the publicly stated goal for this season, something general manager Ben Cherington put forth on the day he was hired. The Pirates knew it would take time -- years, most likely -- to build a winning team. But they wanted to see the emergence of young players like rookie third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who went 5-for-5 with three doubles on Saturday, and the kind of progress their starting pitchers have shown over the last two weeks.
In the future, they hope to enjoy many more nights like this one.
“I wish we were playing 162,” Shelton said afterward, grinning. “This is fun, the way we’re playing right now. Really fun.”
Over their last 12 games, a full fifth of this shortened season, Pittsburgh’s starters have recorded a Major League-best 1.46 ERA since Sept. 16. It was about two weeks ago, Joe Musgrove said, that the starting staff began talking about what they wanted to accomplish over the rest of the season. They were far out of the playoff race, even in a shortened season with an extended postseason field, so they had to reset their goals.
“Something realistic, something that we could really accomplish in these last couple weeks -- and it was to improve our games mentally, physically [and better] game-planning,” Musgrove said. “Just every aspect of what we’re doing, and trying to really improve on it and build something strong going into the offseason; something that we can continue to work on and build for next season.”
Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl each finished their years by pitching seven scoreless innings. Trevor Williams allowed one run over 5 2/3 innings in his final outing. Mitch Keller ended the season on an 11-inning hitless streak. Then came Musgrove, who followed up a career-high 11-strikeout start by throwing a career-high 108 pitches against Cleveland.
Making the final start of his injury-interrupted season, Musgrove held the Indians to three hits and a walk while striking out 10 and earned his first win in his eighth start. Like his fellow starters, Musgrove finished the season on a high note. In five outings since returning from the injured list, Musgrove put together a 2.16 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 25 innings.
Musgrove again relied on his breaking ball more than his fastball, throwing 27 curveballs and 23 sliders while his four-seam fastball accounted for only 31 percent of his offerings. After a two-out walk in the third inning, Musgrove retired the final 13 batters he faced.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Pirates’ rotation started to turn it around when Musgrove and Keller got healthy. It’s enough to make Shelton daydream about what this group, with the addition of Jameson Taillon, might do in 2021.
"I'm very forward-thinking of what this rotation could look like and what we're going to do moving forward,” Shelton said. “Honestly, it gives me a ton of excitement, and I think it gives our group a ton of excitement and hopefully gives Pirates fans a lot of excitement.”
In his first seven starts, Musgrove received a total of four runs of support while he was on the mound. And even during this 12-start run, the Pirates are only 5-7 due to some bullpen meltdowns and a lack of run support. But Pittsburgh’s lineup gave Musgrove five runs in the first three innings and ultimately pounded out 13 hits with three homers in the Pirates' most lopsided victory of the season.
Hayes was in the middle of it all, unsurprisingly, as the rookie logged the Pirates’ first five-hit game since Adam Frazier and Colin Moran each reached the mark on July 1, 2019.
Twenty-three games into his Major League career, the young Hayes accomplished something his father, Charlie, never did during his 14 years in the big leagues. Hayes didn’t know that until after the game, but he promised that his dad would hear about it soon.
“To be able to get five hits at the Major League level is really special for me,” Hayes said. “All the hard work that I’ve been putting in with my swing change, and stuff of that nature, it feels really good.”
Hayes doubled and scored on a single by Moran in the first inning, doubled and scored on a Josh Bell single in the third, then singled in the fourth inning before Moran blasted his 10th homer of the year out to right field. Hayes singled again in the seventh then led off the ninth with a double to right-center, his third two-bagger and fifth hit overall.
It stood out to Shelton that all Hayes’ hits were up the middle or to the opposite field. That’s the sign of a player taking what he’s given and not trying to do too much -- and that’s a rare quality in a 23-year-old nearing the end of his first month in the Majors.
“I think that speaks to who he is,” Shelton said. “He doesn't get up. He doesn't get down. He just plays."
Well, there was one frustrating point, Hayes admitted. After Hayes went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his second career game, hitting coach Rick Eckstein pulled him aside and pointed out that he wasn’t using the middle of the field like he did with Double-A Altoona. Since then, Hayes has had only three hitless games and only one with multiple strikeouts.
“Whether he goes 5-for-5 or 0-for-5, he comes in with the same mentality every day. Real slow heartbeat,” Musgrove said. “It’s fun to watch. He’s a really fun player, and I’m really glad he’s on our side.”