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'We're fighting, man': Bucs address slow start

@adamdberry
August 4, 2020

As Derek Shelton sat down for his postgame press conference on Tuesday, the Pirates manager first mentioned the three-hit performances by Phillip Evans and Erik González, as well as the scoreless relief outings from Dovydas Neverauskas and Yacksel Ríos. Shelton always starts with the positive. That’s not an easy task

As Derek Shelton sat down for his postgame press conference on Tuesday, the Pirates manager first mentioned the three-hit performances by Phillip Evans and Erik González, as well as the scoreless relief outings from Dovydas Neverauskas and Yacksel Ríos. Shelton always starts with the positive.

That’s not an easy task right now, as the Pirates’ losing streak reached six games after a 7-3 defeat to the Twins at Target Field. This season was bound to be a rough road at times, a year for evaluation and development under a new front office and a rookie manager, but the Bucs have struggled to a frustrating 2-9 start.

Box score

“We see all the feedback from the fans. We know it’s a tough start for Shelty in his first go as a manager. No one feels this more than we do,” said starter Joe Musgrove, who allowed five runs on six hits and a career-high-tying five walks in 3 1/3 innings. “We’re living this every day. We’re the ones who are taking the losses on the chin. It sucks. It’s not fun. But we’re fighting, man.”

As their losing streak reached five games on Monday night, the Pirates reminded themselves that they had been more competitive than their record indicated. They lost those five games by a combined nine runs, with their last three defeats coming in one-run games. But in a shortened season, how much longer can they look for silver linings?

“That’s not the start you want to get off to,” Shelton said. “Obviously, we’re not happy with where we’re at, record-wise, but it’s hard to fault our effort.”

Indeed, the Pirates have shown no signs of packing it in. Musgrove grinded through his start after a 31-pitch first inning, telling Shelton, “My stuff sucks today, but I’ll give you everything I’ve got for as long as I can.” Evans and Gonzálezsparked a two-run rally in the ninth, forcing the Twins to bring in reliever Trevor May to end the game.

“Teams that don’t play hard or don’t give consistent effort don’t do what we did in the ninth,” Shelton said.

The goal set by Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington at the outset of the year was for Pittsburgh to get better this season. That improvement will take many forms, from seeing individual development on the field to establishing a more cohesive culture in the clubhouse. But so far, the Pirates have mostly been left to talk about their energy and effort rather than results.

Right now, though, the core of the Pirates’ lineup -- the players they expect to build around -- is not hitting. As a team, their .575 OPS ranks 28th in the Majors. Their starters have not worked deep into games, as they have yet to complete a six-inning outing. Their injury-riddled bullpen has been overworked. Their pitching staff leads the Majors with 58 walks, eight of which came on Tuesday.

And with nearly 20 percent of the season in their rearview mirror, they have the Majors’ worst record.

“As a pitching staff, we have to really do a better job of competitive at-bats and making them earn bases. We’re giving up way too many free bases,” Musgrove said. “That’s one thing we have to clean up. We have to give ourselves a chance to win games. Putting guys on base for free makes the job a lot harder.”

Musgrove found himself in a 2-0 hole five batters into the game, and he’d only given up one hard-hit ball up to that point. He walked leadoff man Max Kepler, who advanced to third on Nelson Cruz’s line-drive single to center that Jarrod Dyson misplayed.

With Pittsburgh’s infield shifted, Eddie Rosario reached way out of the strike zone to slap a 69 mph RBI single to left-center. Miguel Sano then rolled a double down the left-field line, driving in Cruz and putting Rosario in position to score on a sacrifice fly by Luis Arraez.

“What they did today to Joe is what they do,” Shelton said. “They just wear you down.”

Meanwhile, the Pirates’ offense came too little, too late. They scored only once before the ninth, when Reynolds ripped a triple to center and scored on Gregory Polanco’s sacrifice fly in the fourth. They strung together four hits in the final frame, with John Ryan Murphy and Evans driving in a run each, before May retired Bell and Colin Moran to send Pittsburgh home with another loss.

“It’s easy to fall into a trap in a season like we have where every loss kind of gets amplified where, ‘Man, that loss counted as five or six.’ But we showed up at the yard today expecting to win,” said Trevor Williams, who will start Wednesday against the Twins at PNC Park. “It’s little things here and there that we’re tightening up. We’re all pulling for each other in this clubhouse knowing that we have the ability to string some wins together and get hot.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.