Halfway through season, Bucs remain optimistic

June 30th, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- The Pirates reached the halfway point of their season on Saturday night with a 3-1 loss to the Brewers at Miller Park.

Pittsburgh is 39-42, sitting in fourth place in the National League Central, though the club’s recent play has provided reason for optimism in the clubhouse. Even after losing Saturday, the Pirates have won seven of their last nine games and nine of their last 13.

The Bucs have pulled themselves out of the NL Central basement, sitting five games behind the division-leading Cubs. They have the same record now that they did after 81 games a year ago, and last season’s mid-July surge proved that they are potentially only one hot streak away from dramatically changing course as they approach the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

“We’ve had multiple opportunities during the first half to find out what we are capable of doing when it maybe wasn’t the way we thought we were going to do it,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “From that standpoint, I still believe the best is yet to come.”

It hasn’t been an easy road to this point, which is why Hurdle can hope for a brighter future in the second half. The Pirates were beset by early injuries to their outfield and more recently by a slew of injured pitchers, and those stints on the injured list seemingly changed the identity of their team. The pitching staff carried them through April, while a resilient lineup has led their recent turnaround.

One key pitcher returned to the mound Saturday, as Jordan Lyles recorded a quality start in his return from the injured list. He wasn’t pleased with his performance afterward, though it essentially came down to an errant pickoff throw in the first inning and a pair of hits (a triple and a solo homer) by Eric Thames.

“The throwaway by myself was inexcusable, then Thames keeps on haunting me,” Lyles said.

But Lyles threw 103 pitches and said he felt good physically after missing nearly three weeks due to left hamstring tightness, which is the more important takeaway for Pittsburgh as the club begins the second half of the season.

“Going forward, everything feels good. Happy about that,” Lyles said. “But we lost tonight. It was on my shoulders. We’ll come in tomorrow and see what we can improve on. But health-wise, we’re there where we want to be. Obviously, that’s the No. 1 goal coming back from an injury, but tonight I just got outpitched by [Brewers starter Brandon] Woodruff.”

Yes, even the Pirates’ torrid lineup -- which had put up 55 runs and 13 homers over the previous eight games -- was no match for Woodruff. The righty struck out six and allowed only six hits over 7 2/3 innings, improving to 10-2.

“You look at the numbers across the board, the guy is legit,” Hurdle said. “That’s the best fastball we’ve seen from him. He held it through seven innings. The slider was tight; he threw it in any count. He’s 10-2 for a reason.”

The Pirates’ only rally against Woodruff came in the first inning. Shortstop Kevin Newman hit a leadoff single to center, extending his hitting streak to 19 games, and eventually came around to score on a two-out double to right by Colin Moran. Josh Bell tried to score from first base on Moran’s hit, but he was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.

After that, Woodruff retired nine straight heading into the fifth. The Bucs put runners on base in the fifth, seventh and eighth, but they couldn’t push another run across. Moran hit a leadoff single in the seventh, but that inning quickly fizzled when Corey Dickerson was ruled out at first on a 3-6-3 double play. Replays showed that Dickerson beat Tyler Saladino’s throw to the bag, but the Bucs had already lost their challenge and Hurdle could not prompt a crew-chief review because it was only the seventh.

“That’s part of it, part of the game,” Hurdle said. “Our guy [video coordinator Kevin Roach] does a really good job. It’s like anything else. Anything in this game gets second-guessed now.”

There’s less second-guessing about the Pirates' bullpen these days, as that group has seemingly stabilized itself after a turbulent stretch. Four high-leverage relievers worked five scoreless innings in Friday’s victory, and middle relievers Michael Feliz and Clay Holmes combined to keep the Bucs' deficit at two on Saturday.

Even as Brewers closer Josh Hader retired the Pirates in order in the ninth, the Bucs still held out hope. Newman pointed to the six-pitch at-bat by pinch-hitter Jose Osuna, who popped out for the game’s final out, as representation of their attitude at the midway point of the season.

“We’re definitely still in it. We’ve had some really good comeback wins. I think it’s great for the team to know we have that in us,” Newman said. “We don’t just belly up and give up at the end of games. Osuna’s at-bat tonight, to face [Hader] off the bench is tough, and he went up there and gave it everything he had, had a quality at-bat and battled. It kind of speaks to the mentality and grit that we have here.”