Bucs' shutdown 'pen, OBP uptick on display

June 23rd, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates narrowly dropped their two-game series finale to the White Sox on Wednesday afternoon at PNC Park, but they’re showing signs of improvement from a 10-game losing streak entering this homestand.

Facing two teams above .500 in the Indians and the White Sox, Pittsburgh took three of five games and dropped the other two by a combined two runs, including Wednesday’s 4-3 loss.

What went right to give the Pirates a boost before they set out on a road trip, beginning Thursday in St. Louis? Here are three keys to the homestand.

Bullpen bounces back
After some of their most reliable bullpen arms struggled over the stretch of losses, they had a one-game implosion on Friday. But rumors of the unit’s downfall are exaggerated and unfounded.

Yes, the ‘pen gave up nine runs (eight earned) on Friday after Chad Kuhl (one run allowed over six innings) shut down Cleveland in a wacky 11-10 win. But they pushed right back and shoved like they have for long stretches this season, posting a 0.68 ERA (one run in 13 1/3 innings) through the final four games of the homestand.

“I trust the bullpen. I trust our guys,” outfielder Gregory Polanco said on Friday. “Things are going to happen. They happen to the best pitchers. They happen to anyone. You’ve got to keep competing.”

Those results include bounceback efforts from a few key guys. Kyle Crick was electric against the White Sox on Tuesday, when he struck out the side in the eighth inning. Clay Holmes, who gave up seven runs in four appearances during the losing streak, had three scoreless outings at home, including the ninth inning Wednesday.

And David Bednar, who gave up four runs over two appearances leading into the homestand, also pitched three scoreless outings, including his first MLB win. What makes it extra special? It not only happened in his hometown of Pittsburgh, but it also came a day after his brother, top Draft prospect Will Bednar of Mississippi State, struck out 15 in six innings in his first College World Series victory.

“I always had big aspirations to play here, but never in my wildest dreams thought it would actually come true,” Bednar said. “Just beyond blessed to have the opportunity I have right now.”

On-base threat
Even with a couple of games where they scored three runs or fewer, the Pirates’ offense looks to be in a much better spot than it was during the losing stretch. A large part of that comes down to how much more consistently the Bucs have been able to get runners on base.

The Pirates posted a .338 on-base percentage over the homestand entering Wednesday’s finale. It was .273 over the 10-game losing streak.

“[Creating opportunities] is something that we hadn't done on the road trip. Today, we had them,” manager Derek Shelton said. “Reynolds hit a hard double-play ball -- that happens. But at least we're back to creating those opportunities, which is important.”

What’s even better is that it’s been spread out across the lineup during the homestand, as the bottom of the lineup has fueled the three lopsided innings (four runs or more) in the stretch. With a hit-heavy top of the lineup, that on-base ability makes a huge impact when it happens routinely.

“Whenever you have guys on [that are] in scoring position, they don’t want to bounce as many breaking balls and stuff like that,” said Ke’Bryan Hayes, who had two hits on Wednesday. “Anytime you’ve got baserunners on every inning, it’s going to help whoever is up there at the plate.”

Contact creates chances
The Pirates are not built for one big swing that changes the game, so they must feast on balls in play. In the past five games, they’ve done just that.

In the first four games of the Pirates’ short homestand, the offense struck out at a 20.8% clip, which was the fifth-lowest mark in the Majors over that span.

Wednesday’s loss showed what happens when the strikeouts happen at a higher rate. The Pirates got runners on base at a decent clip, especially for the first seven innings, but they struck out 11 times in 38 plate appearances -- a 28.9% rate.

No clearer was that ability than the way the Pirates attacked Lucas Giolito on Tuesday night. The right-hander struck out 13 Bucs in a no-hitter last season, but they made him work for the seven he recorded in the series opener, with a lot of fouls and ground balls sprinkled in, and then they struck against the bullpen.

“I think it’s a testament to our guys,” Shelton said. “This is a guy who no-hit us last year, and we made him work the entire game.”