Since he was hired as the Pirates’ general manager last year, Ben Cherington has consistently avoided using the word “rebuild” while frequently saying some version of this sentiment he shared after this year’s Trade Deadline: “We’re working to build a winning team. We believe some of the pieces of that are here.”
The Pirates won’t have a winning team in 2020. They clinched their 24th losing season in 28 years on Monday as they were swept by the Reds in a doubleheader at Great American Ball Park. Many of their flaws were on display throughout the twin bill, as they struck out a combined 25 times, walked nine batters in the second game and made mistakes on the bases and in the field.
"We can't strike out 25 times, or whatever it was, in essentially 14 innings,” manager Derek Shelton said. “And we can't walk nine guys in a seven-inning game, and I think we walked four in the first game. We have to execute better. That's the thing that bothers me the most."
This year has been a reminder that Cherington’s “building” process will take time. The Pirates lost 93 games a year ago, and they have the Majors’ worst record and run differential this season. But Mitch Keller and Ke'Bryan Hayes, two of the young players they could build around, offered glimpses of hope in the Bucs’ 9-4 loss on Monday night.
Keller made a healthy return from the 10-day injured list, and while he was a little rusty in his first start since Aug. 1, his high-octane stuff also returned. The 24-year-old right-hander gave up three runs on a pair of homers and walked four, but he also struck out four in three innings of work.
“Just felt like I took a little bit extra to control it there, and then in the third inning, I think I really found it,” Keller said. “Hopefully we keep rolling with that the next time. I feel really good.”
In two starts before he went on the shelf with a strained left oblique, Keller’s fastball clocked in at 92.6 mph. On Monday night, his heater topped out at 97.3 mph and averaged 95.2 with his typical, easy delivery. Keller said he dove into his mechanics, ironing out a few kinks that may have contributed to both his dip in velocity and his injury.
“It was good to see the velocity. Just got to be in the zone a little bit more,” Shelton said. “But, first time out, he's healthy. That's a positive sign."
His 65th and final pitch might have been his best: a diving curveball that caused Mike Moustakas to whiff for the last out of the third inning. It wasn’t a clean outing by any means, but it was something to build on in his final few starts of the season.
“The main thing is finishing really strong and healthy and making sure I’m in a good spot,” Keller said. “I want these last few starts to be really good.”
Hayes continued to shine as he finished up just his second week in the Majors. The 23-year-old third baseman turned Pittsburgh’s one-run deficit into a one-run lead in the fifth inning by blasting his second homer out to left-center field off Anthony DeSclafani. After mostly feasting on fastballs in his first 10 games, Hayes turned on a low slider for his second homer.
“It definitely feels good,” said Hayes, who is hitting .316 with a .986 OPS after 11 games. “I feel like I'm seeing offspeed even better, with the adjustments that I was making in the offseason, just being on my back side more.”
This has been a tough year for the Pirates, the beginning of what figures to be a long road back to relevance under Cherington and a new front office regime. But it’s not so difficult to imagine a brighter future with Keller on the mound and Hayes at third base. They’ve been thinking about it since they were roommates in Class A ball.
“Just being able to share the field with him tonight was awesome,” Hayes said, “and hopefully we get to do it for a long time.”
The game got away from the Pirates after Hayes’ homer. After striking out Joey Votto, lefty reliever Nik Turley pitched around Eugenio Suárez to bring up the left-handed-hitting Mike Moustakas. And Moustakas made Turley pay for a 2-0 fastball left over the plate by crushing a three-run homer out to center.
That bumped the Reds’ streak to 21 straight runs against the Pirates on homers, a stretch that ran from the first game of their Sept. 4 doubleheader until reliever Geoff Hartlieb gave up three runs and walked four without recording an out in the sixth inning.
“[Turley] threw the breaking balls to Suárez and didn't execute, and then got behind Moustakas, threw him a fastball and he took advantage,” Shelton said. “Hartlieb's been outstanding, and tonight he just couldn't find the plate."
To make room for Keller, the Pirates placed reliever Kyle Crick on the 10-day injured list. Shelton said Crick is dealing with a lat strain. Shelton couldn’t confirm if it was the same right shoulder/lat muscle strain that sidelined Crick, whose fastball velocity has been well below his career average this year, from July 28-Aug. 29.