Leading up to Opening Day, players spoke about the possibility presented by this season’s shortened schedule. Every game is magnified. Every at-bat matters. Every victory is like winning a series.
But there is a negative side effect to that line of thinking. If every game means more, every slump is significant and every loss is like being swept, what do the Pirates make of their situation now that they’re 0-2 on the year after being three-hit in a 9-1 loss to the Cardinals?
“We’re looking forward to every opportunity. We know that those wins are going to come,” starter Trevor Williams said. “And when the wins do come, it’s going to count as three or four. … If we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves, I don’t see it that way. I know that, going into every game, we’re ready and we’re prepared to do the best of our abilities.”
If preparation wasn’t an issue on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, execution was. After a missed opportunity with the bases loaded in the second inning, the Pirates only managed one hit and didn’t get a runner to second base. In fact, they only hit four balls out of the infield the rest of the way.
It would be easy to point to the bottom of the order, as manager Derek Shelton shuffled the lineup, giving players time to get used to playing nine innings following an abbreviated Summer Camp buildup. But Pittsburgh’s top four hitters -- Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds, Adam Frazier and Josh Bell -- went a combined 1-for-15 with a walk and three strikeouts on the day. Those four went just 3-for-16 in the Pirates’ Opening Day loss.
“It's two games. You can magnify it because it is a shorter season. But the most important thing is, these guys are going to hit,” Shelton said. “They’re going to have better at-bats. We just have to get our feet on the ground and get going.”
The Pirates put themselves in position to get ahead against Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright early on Saturday. After going down in order in the first inning, the Bucs loaded the bases with nobody out in the second. That was their best chance and, as it turned out, their only one.
The inning began promisingly enough. Bell and Colin Moran smacked singles to right field, then Wainwright plunked Phillip Evans to load the bases. Center fielder Guillermo Heredia got ahead of Wainwright, 3-1, but he whiffed on a curveball then -- with Wainwright figuring Heredia expected another curveball -- went down looking at a fastball on the outer edge.
“That changed the whole inning,” Wainwright said. “If I make a bad pitch there or I end up walking him there, who knows what happens that inning.”
Catcher John Ryan Murphy worked a six-pitch walk to tie the game, but the rally fizzled. Cole Tucker swung at Wainwright’s first-pitch cutter and popped out, then Newman grounded out to end the threat.
The Pirates made Wainwright throw 26 pitches in that inning, but he breezed through the next four frames on only 47 pitches.
“When he got into big spots, he made good pitches. That’s what guys who’ve pitched for as long as him do,” Shelton said. “We were probably a hitter away from him being out of the game.”
The Cardinals pulled ahead by two in the fourth with singles by Paul DeJong, Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler and Tyler O’Neill, though Williams didn’t actually surrender much hard contact in that inning. Williams gave up three runs on five hits with three strikeouts and needed 67 pitches to record 11 outs.
“It’s something that we can grow on and know that, as far as execution goes with my pitches, we were executing fine,” Williams said. “We threw the pitches that we wanted to throw and executed it to the best of our ability. Sometimes, they just hit seeing-eye singles. In their case, they strung ‘em together at the right time.”
Shelton turned to right-hander Chris Stratton, who got out of the fourth inning and pitched a perfect fifth. Lefty Nik Turley, making his first appearance in the Majors or Minors since September 2017, also kept the game within reach by working a clean sixth.
The Bucs’ bats remained silent, however, and the game got away from their bullpen in a bizarre seventh inning. Reliever Kyle Crick struck out two batters, but he had two balls bounce off his glove, and DeJong capitalized with a two-run single to left. Matt Carpenter then greeted lefty Robbie Erlin with a two-run double to right-center field, and Erlin gave up two more runs in the eighth.
Afterward, Shelton chose to focus on what went right for the Pirates. The season’s too short to think about it any other way.
“The key point in the game for me was the way that Stratton and Turley threw the ball,” Shelton said. “And even Cricky, the slider was better than we had seen in the exhibition. We got two balls that we didn’t field in a [pitchers’ fielding practice] situation, where he [would have had] a clean inning. … As screwed up as it sounds in a 9-1 game, there were some encouraging things with those three guys.”