Reliable bullpen unravels in loss to Braves

July 8th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates’ three-game win streak, which tied a season high, was snapped on Wednesday. One of the key components to that streak was missing. 

Pittsburgh fell, 14-3, to the Braves in the series finale at PNC Park, which was lengthened by a rain delay of one hour and 18 minutes. The Pirates entered the sixth inning with a lead, but unlike in their recent wins, the bullpen came up short in a lopsided inning.

walked two batters to begin the inning, which marked the first time he issued a pair of free passes since the end of May. It set up his first loss since Sept. 1

Command was an issue. Of the 12 pitches Crick threw outside the zone (eight sliders and four four-seamers), only three were offered at, and only one of those was a whiff. Another was fouled off by Dansby Swanson, who led off the inning with a walk, and the other was hit for a single by Ronald Acuña Jr. to chase Crick from the game.

“He has had some good outings. It’s just command, putting the ball on the plate,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We know that his stuff plays when it’s on the plate.”

Crick ended up with four runs on his line with only one out recorded, but two of those runs scored with pitching. The left-hander got Freddie Freeman to fly out to right field to come within one out of escaping the jam and giving the Pirates’ offense a one-run deficit to cut back into.

Shreve has been one of the most successful relievers in terms of run prevention for the Pirates this season, posting a 2.25 ERA entering Wednesday and making himself into a potential trade piece for the Pirates, who are clear sellers at the Trade Deadline. But his most effective pitch -- the splitter -- was way off against the Braves; none of his 10 splitters landed in the zone, per Baseball Savant’s Illustrator tool, though one was called a strike.

“I don’t know how many guys we walked today, but we just did not throw the ball on the plate,” Shelton said. “We paid for it.”

entered in the eighth with a four-run deficit to get some work, and he did what the other two did not, walking no batters. However, a lot of his stuff ended up down the middle, and the Braves hit and hit to the tune of seven runs to turn the game into a blowout.

Shelton and athletic trainer Rafael Freitas went out to check on Underwood for fatigue, as the right-hander threw 34 pitches that inning, but he was able to finish it out.

“I just talked to him a little bit,” Shelton said. “He seemed like he was a little bit gassed. That’s one of those outings there we just need to throw away for him because he’s done a pretty good job for us.”

The Pirates are 22 games under .500, but Wednesday marked only the second time they’ve had a blowout loss so steep they’ve needed to turn to a position player to pitch. Both times have come against the Braves. gave up eight runs in an inning on May 21 in Atlanta, then entered in the ninth on Wednesday.

Nogowski, who also had four hits in the game, faced the minimum, allowing a hit to Swanson before turning an inning-ending double play. It’s one of the few days the numbers on the Pirates’ relief corps, whose 2.4 fWAR entering Wednesday was fifth in the National League, were skyrocketed by an opponent in grand fashion and bolstered by a position player.

“Whatever I need to do to make myself valuable, I’m going to do it,” Nogowski said. “Hopefully, that’s not pitching too much. Hopefully, that’s with the bat and with my glove. But anything I can do to help us win, if that means we can save a reliever tomorrow in this next series, let’s absolutely do it.”

The bullpen was a key ingredient to the three-game winning streak, with two decisions determined by two runs or fewer. Pirates relievers combined for nine scoreless innings in the stretch, while the starting group afforded only two runs.

They know to be successful, they’ll need their bullpen to click. They hope this outing is just a blip and they won’t be calling on Nogowski any more this season.

“Baseball is a pretty crazy game,” Nogowski said. “It keeps you on your toes.”