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Bucs see pitching as ticket to postseason

Solid starters and lights-out bullpen has Pirates thinking playoffs
@adamdberry
March 24, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates’ path to the postseason from 2013-15 was paved primarily by elite pitching. In terms of staff ERA, they ranked third in the Majors in 2013, eighth in ’14 and second in ’15. The Bucs believe they have the makings of another formidable rotation and a

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates’ path to the postseason from 2013-15 was paved primarily by elite pitching. In terms of staff ERA, they ranked third in the Majors in 2013, eighth in ’14 and second in ’15.

The Bucs believe they have the makings of another formidable rotation and a lights-out bullpen this year, which is why they’re optimistic about their chances of getting back to the playoffs.

“Pitching wins games. We like our pitching,” general manager Neal Huntington said on MLB Network. “We think our pitching puts us in a position to win every night.”

The key players are set to return from the staff that posted the Majors’ fourth-best ERA in the second half of last season. There will be questions about the last spot in the Pirates’ rotation and some of the final jobs in their bullpen, but they feel confident that the front of their rotation and the back of their bullpen will form the core of a winning team.

“Our strength is what it has been since I was here last year,” starter Chris Archer said earlier this spring. “The second half of the season, our starting rotation was exceptional and our bullpen was elite.”

The rotation is fronted by Opening Day starter Jameson Taillon, Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. While they expect their bullpen to lock down every lead they get, they’re taking it upon themselves to work deep into games even in an era of openers and shorter starts.

“We haven’t sat down and put down a checklist of stuff, but we’ve talked about wanting to take the ball, wanting to pitch innings and wanting quality starts. We definitely talk about it,” Taillon said. “I’ve heard Archer talk about innings. He wants 1,000 innings out of us. I think that’s a great goal. Health and the season happens, but that’s where our heads are at.

“We want to take the ball. When it’s our turn, we want to pitch and go deep in games.”

They’ve shown the ability to do so. Taillon pitched 191 innings over 32 starts last year, and he worked at least six innings in 21 of those outings. Archer topped 200 innings each year from 2015-17 before injuries and an ineffective August dropped him below that total last season.

Williams completed six innings in 18 of his 31 starts last season -- and nine of those came over his last 12 starts, while he was recording a 1.38 second-half ERA. Musgrove must prove his health after making 19 starts in his first full season back in a big league rotation. But he carried the load when he was on the mound, working six innings in all but five of his starts.

“We have a really strong second half of our game,” Musgrove said. “So the starters, if we can get through five or six innings with a lead, we feel pretty confident in our ability to win games.”

That’s where the back end of the bullpen comes into play. Pittsburgh struggled seemingly without end to find the right middle-relief mix last season, but the late-game pieces fell into place around July. That’s when manager Clint Hurdle began turning to the quartet of Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, Kyle Crick and closer Felipe Vázquez.

The Pirates lost Santana for this season after he underwent Tommy John surgery in September, but they acquired an even more experienced strikeout artist in former Rangers closer Keone Kela.

Whenever they have a lead after five innings, the Pirates can turn to Rodriguez, the unexpected success story of 2018 who held lefty hitters to a .439 OPS. Or they can give the ball to Crick, the former first-round pick who limited right-handers to a .475 OPS. Then they can call upon Kela, who struck out 66 while posting a 3.29 ERA in 52 innings last season.

After that comes Vazquez. The All-Star lefty reported to Spring Training in better shape than ever, touching 101 mph and baffling hitters with a legitimate four-pitch mix. There’s a reason they call him “Nightmare,” after all.

“We have very strong confidence in our bullpen,” Hurdle said. “We have men that have done the job, have done the work… The arms are dynamic. There’s real velocity. There’s real spin. There’s real deception, the tunneling that some of them are picking up on, as well. There’s weapons out there.

“There’s guys that like pitching at that important time of the game, which is also a good feeling for the team to have.”

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