Keller (8 K's) extends historic run of dependability in Bucs' win

June 1st, 2024

TORONTO -- Manager Derek Shelton didn’t have any intention of going to his bullpen yet when he walked to the mound at Rogers Centre in the sixth inning. If had told Shelton he was gassed and needed to be removed after 5 2/3 frames and 103 pitches, Shelton would have taken the ball. But as far as the skipper was concerned, this was still Keller's game.

"At this point, he's kind of deserved that. He's earned that [right] to have a conversation," said Shelton. "As soon as I got there, he's like 'Hey, I'm good.' And I'm like, 'All right, I'm going to stand out here for a second and then jog back.'"

Keller took that breather, then he got George Springer to line out and end the frame. That 106th pitch was Keller's final of the day, giving his team six strong innings the day after Pirates lost a 14-inning marathon to the Blue Jays. Behind Keller and home runs by Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds, the Bucs rebounded nicely for an 8-1 win on Saturday.

While Friday’s loss was one of the toughest pills the Pirates have had to swallow this year, they knew they could turn to their staff leader, who is one of the hottest pitchers in the game right now. Keller has won all of his past five outings, recording a 1.34 ERA in that stretch. He’s the first Pirate to win five straight starts since J.A. Happ in 2015.

He’s also provided the team with a remarkable level of consistency over these past two seasons. Keller has pitched at least five innings in 43 straight starts, dating back to April 4, 2023. Only two other Pirates in the past 100 years have done that: Ian Snell had 43 straight starts of at least five innings from May 20, 2006, to July 18, 2007, and A.J. Burnett had a streak of 49 such starts from May 8, 2012, to Aug. 10, 2013.

That level of consistency was one of the reasons why the Pirates inked Keller to a five-year contract this Spring Training. It's also one of the things he takes the most pride in.

"I mean, even coming up through the Minor Leagues, that was the thing," said Keller. "Starters go as deep as possible, that was the M.O. Three pitches or less to every batter, go as deep as you can into the game. I think that really helped me when I got to the big leagues and started seeing success. Like, OK, I can do this and be efficient."

On Saturday, Keller spun six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts -- all without his sinker, one of his best offerings. The pitch wasn’t moving like it normally does, so catcher Yasmani Grandal called an audible for more cutters to right-handers, something that Keller doesn’t do often. It worked, but the Blue Jays were able to inflate his pitch count to 80 through four innings.

Still, Keller was able to regroup and attack the zone efficiently to get through two more innings and record his fifth straight quality start. That set the stage for Luis L. Ortiz to pitch the final three frames and get his first Major League save. After a taxing day for the bullpen on Friday, Keller’s ability to rebound gave his relievers some much-needed rest.

"I think it's maturation," Shelton said. "We talked about the things that we've seen out of [Keller] the last three or four years. Two years ago, that start gets away from him. Today, it doesn't. He stays under control, continues to make pitches, uses his defense, doesn't try to do too much. That's the sign of what good veteran pitchers do."

Keller whole-heartedly agrees with his manager.

"I think in the past, if I didn't have my best stuff, I'd get discouraged about it or whatever," Keller said. "But at the end of the day, it's about making pitches and executing spots and [getting] a little lucky sometimes."

A little luck never hurts, but one doesn’t win five straight starts unless they’re also executing. And when Keller is on the mound, he’s setting the pace for the team, like a staff ace should.

"We can see Mitch Keller's confidence on the mound, executing pitches," said Ortiz, via interpreter and coach Stephen Morales. "What that means for us in the bullpen is that we have to go in and just take it where he left it. Do our best out there to give us a chance to win the game."