PITTSBURGH -- With their bullpen beaten up by injuries and starter Joe Musgrove scratched due to right ankle soreness, the Pirates knew they’d have to rely on a patchwork pitching plan in Sunday’s series finale against the Tigers at PNC Park.
They probably couldn’t have asked for better results. After giving up 17 runs on Friday and 11 on Saturday, five Pirates pitchers combined to hold the Tigers to four hits and two walks while striking out 12. But for all the quality work they did over 134 pitches, Pittsburgh’s 2-1 loss to Detroit turned on one of the weirdest wild pitches you’ll ever see.
With two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, right-hander Richard Rodríguez -- arguably the most stable arm available out of the Pirates bullpen -- plunked Jonathan Schoop with a first-pitch slider. Then, on Rodríguez’s first offering to Miguel Cabrera, his right cleat got caught in the dirt on the mound, and he wound up flinging the ball about 10 feet behind Cabrera.
The ball bounced off the backstop, and by the time catcher John Ryan Murphy could corral it, Schoop had advanced into scoring position. Five pitches later, Cabrera punched a single into left field that brought home Schoop to put the Tigers ahead.
“I’ve seen guys catch their spikes with runners on second and third, bases loaded. It’s just one of those things that happened. It’s a freak play,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened at that time, especially as well as Richie threw the ball.”
Brault returned to form on one day’s rest after an ugly outing on Friday in which he retired none of the six Detroit hitters he faced. The lefty worked two hitless innings on 26 pitches with one walk, one hit batter and one strikeout. Afterward, Brault was asked if it felt good to put up two zeroes so soon after his last appearance.
"I put zeroes up last time; I got zero outs. So it was nice to do the opposite of that this time,” Brault said, smiling. “But yeah, felt good. I'm glad that I was able to go out there so fast and against the same team and perform. It's a good feeling.”
He gave way to Stratton, who struck out six over three innings. He gave up one run in the fifth, as Victor Reyes doubled and scored on an Austin Romine single, but it was yet another effective performance overall by the right-hander. His mix of four-seam fastballs, curveballs and sliders caused the Tigers to swing and miss on 10 of the 49 pitches he threw. The Pirates only intended to use Stratton for two innings, but he was efficient enough to earn a third from Shelton.
“Any time I’m pitching, I always want to go the extra one,” Stratton said. “He shot me down pretty quick earlier this season, so I’m glad he gave me one more.”
Hartlieb looked excellent as he struck out Schoop and Cabrera in a clean sixth, and Turley worked around a walk in the seventh. But with Detroit starter Spencer Turnbull limiting Pittsburgh’s inconsistent lineup to one run over seven innings, the bizarre mistake by Rodríguez in the eighth inning proved costly.
“He kept us off-balance and kept us on the ground,” Shelton said of Turnbull. “We had a couple opportunities to score and just didn’t get the big hit.”
The Pirates are now 3-13 on the year after being swept by the Tigers, tied with 1952 for their worst 16-game start in franchise history. While there have been plenty of issues, from a lineup with scuffling central figures to miscues like Sunday’s wild pitch, one persistent problem has been a lack of depth for their injury-plagued staff.
The Pirates survived that on Sunday due primarily to the performances of Brault and Stratton, but general manager Ben Cherington said that the front office was working to “stabilize” their internal pitching roster while adding help from outside the organization.
They took one step in that direction on Sunday by signing Henderson Alvarez to a Minor League deal. Alvarez, 30, was a 2014 All-Star with the Marlins who threw a no-hitter on the final day of the 2013 season. Alvarez has not pitched in the Majors since 2017, when he returned from a shoulder injury to join the Phillies, and he was most recently pitching for the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association.
“We’re working on both fronts,” Cherington said Saturday. “Hopefully over the next few days, we’ll have some progress on both of those things -- both getting guys into a better spot internally and also hopefully finding some ways to supplement that externally.”