The Pirates lost for the sixth time in eight games on Saturday night, 4-3, at Wrigley Field. They had no answer for Cubs starter Tyler Chatwood, who struck out 11 over 6 2/3 innings, and their ninth-inning rally came up short for the second straight night.
Another tough game at the plate solidified the Pirates’ ownership of the Majors’ lowest batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. Manager Derek Shelton praised their resilience afterward, but they know they need to see more from the heart of their order -- preferably earlier than the ninth inning -- soon.
“We have very talented hitters,” Colin Moran said. “I know it’s the beginning of the season, so everything feels like it’s more amplified. … It just takes some timing, and then you click and you roll with it.”
But it was the loss of two pitchers, not the lack of offense, that stood out for the Pirates on Saturday night. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Pittsburgh’s third straight loss.
1. Keller and Feliz are injured
It’s possible the Pirates will be without rookie starter Mitch Keller for a portion of this shortened season.
After giving up a pair of solo home runs and getting two outs in the third inning, Keller bounced a 1-0 curveball to Willson Contreras way out in front of the plate and immediately called head athletic trainer Bryan Housand to the mound. Keller didn’t attempt to throw again before walking off the field and into the clubhouse with what the club later revealed was left side discomfort.
Shelton said Keller was being evaluated by the Pirates’ medical staff, declining to provide further updates. But he confirmed the injury was “isolated to tonight,” not something he dealt with previously.
The 24-year-old righty seemed to lack command of his pitches in the third inning, leaving fastballs over the plate and hanging a few of his signature curveballs. But Keller’s fastball velocity was more in line with his career norm, averaging 93.5 mph and touching 95 after averaging just 92 and maxing out at 93.8 in his season debut last Sunday in St. Louis.
Keller was encouraged about the work he did in Spring Training and Summer Camp, and he is perhaps Pittsburgh’s best bet to take a big step forward under new pitching coach Oscar Marin. A 60-game season already limits the learning curve for young players in the Majors, and an injury-interrupted year would present even more of a setback.
The Pirates also saw reliever Michael Feliz walk off the mound with an injury, exiting in the eighth inning due to right forearm discomfort. After giving up a two-run homer to Kyle Schwarber and a single to Contreras, Feliz threw a first-pitch changeup to Jason Heyward that prompted catcher Jacob Stallings to call to the dugout. Assistant athletic trainer Ben Potenziano came out to check on Feliz, who exited the game without trying to throw another pitch.
The Pirates carried right-hander Cody Ponce and lefty reliever Sam Howard on their taxi squad for this road trip, so they have fresh arms available if they need immediate reinforcements.
The longterm impact of potentially losing Feliz, one of the only experienced arms in their battered bullpen, and Keller depends on the severity of their injuries.
2. Brubaker looks ready to step into a bigger role
If Keller is sidelined, his replacement in the rotation may be right-hander JT Brubaker, who put together another strong outing against the Cubs.
Brubaker struck out three while allowing only one hit and a walk over three scoreless innings, showing command of all his pitches and keeping the Cubs’ lead at two runs. He worked himself into a bases-loaded jam with two outs in the sixth before getting David Bote to line out to center field.
"I mean, that was poise,” Shelton said. “Never lost his cool, executed pitches, executed the slider with really good velocity. … It was a really nice step for him.”
Brubaker was a starter in the Minors, and both of his outings this year have come in relief of Keller. He said nobody has told him anything about what comes next, but he would be lined up to start on Thursday, if needed, and he said he was stretched out to pitch four innings during Summer Camp.
“Whatever role, I’m ready for it,” Brubaker said. “You guys know that baseball is a game of adjustments. Whatever happens, it happens.”
3. Moran’s adjustments are paying off
With one out in the ninth, Moran claimed the Major League lead by launching his fifth home run of the season out to right field. Bryan Reynolds doubled and eventually scored on a groundout by Gregory Polanco. Phillip Evans worked a walk off Rowan Wick, putting the tying run on base, but pinch-hitter José Osuna grounded out to end the game.
Moran delivering the big hit was perhaps no surprise, considering the way this season has started. He has been the Pirates’ only consistent performer at the plate, batting .321 with a 1.260 OPS and seven RBIs. Maybe we should have seen this coming from Moran in his third season with the Pirates and his second with hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
Moran tweaked the mechanics of his swing over the offseason, cutting back his leg kick and incorporating a toe tap to improve his timing. Eckstein encouraged him to be aggressive, and he’s swinging with more intent. He also studied opponents’ tendencies against him and prepared to hit breaking balls, like the one that lefty Kyle Ryan threw in the ninth inning.
“I’ve tried a lot of things that haven’t worked. I think it’s kind of trial by error,” Moran said. “I feel like I have some things that do well, some things that I try to work on. That one happened to click, so just trying to keep it going.”