Improving 'pen provides time for walk-off

September 6th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- One of the Pirates’ biggest weaknesses in the first third of this shortened season has turned into a surprising strength. The names have changed and their roles are new, but the Bucs’ bullpen continued to coalesce while paving the way for a 3-2 walk-off win over the Reds on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.

Pittsburgh’s lineup is still a source of frustration, and that remained the case until the game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth. Three straight singles by Josh Bell, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker tied the game. The Reds recorded one out on Kevin Newman’s chopper back to the mound, then Erik González smacked a sacrifice fly to right field for the first walk-off RBI of his career, as Tucker slid home to secure the Bucs’ 13th win of the year.

“We needed to win that one. When you pitch that well, you’ve got to win ballgames. We did today,” Tucker said. “It felt really good to string a couple of hits there, then Gonzo with the sac fly to reward our ‘pen.”

The Pirates’ oft-stated goal this season is to get better. Some hitters, like González and Colin Moran, are doing exactly that. But it’s been difficult to discern signs of improvement from their lineup, collectively, especially compared to the strides they’ve seen a number of relievers take so far this season.

It was all on display Sunday afternoon. Right-hander Chad Kuhl needed 64 pitches to get through three innings as he struck out five, walked four and served up a two-run homer to Nick Castellanos. Manager Derek Shelton said Kuhl was limited to 65 pitches in this planned “back-down start,” so he asked his five most trusted relievers to cover six innings.

They delivered as well as anybody could have hoped for. The Pirates’ bullpen allowed only one hit and three walks while striking out seven. It was an effort that deserved to be rewarded with a win.

"I feel like the bullpen's been pretty strong so far. I feel like we're pretty good at keeping it loose down there,” lefty reliever Sam Howard said. “Everyone's good at their own routine and know what they need to do to get ready. … What we have working down there is pretty good, and hopefully it keeps going in the right direction."

Back in Spring Training, nobody would have predicted that Shelton’s top five high-leverage relievers would be Geoff Hartlieb, Sam Howard, Chris Stratton, Nik Turley and Richard Rodríguez. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on Opening Day, in fact, considering Hartlieb and Howard didn’t crack the 30-man roster on July 24.

In its first 20 games of the season, the Pirates’ bullpen combined to put together a 5.96 ERA, the fourth-worst mark in the Majors. In 19 games since then, their relievers have posted a 2.74 ERA, one of the best in baseball -- and most of that success has been a product of these five relievers’ work.

This is not the relief corps the Pirates expected, as they’ve spent most of the season without right-handers Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Michael Feliz and Clay Holmes. But all the injuries in Pittsburgh’s bullpen have created opportunities, and the five that played a part in Sunday’s win have seized upon them.

“When you have a couple guys from last year [who were] maybe on some other teams that weren’t in leverage situations, maybe were in mop-up situations, and now this year they get the opportunity to get in those leverage situations -- winning tight ballgames, within one run -- the teaching points do come,” pitching coach Oscar Marin said. “I think, because of those teaching points, these guys are getting better each time out.”

First came Hartlieb, who posted a 9.00 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP in 29 appearances as a rookie last season. Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage encouraged him to trust his bowling-ball sinker and helped tweak his delivery to make his slider more effective, and better results have followed.

“I think clarity for him of what makes him good is probably the biggest difference-maker for him,” Marin said.

The right-hander fired two scoreless innings with two strikeouts, giving him a 1.96 ERA and 1.31 WHIP with 16 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings over 15 appearances this season. He was followed by Howard, who struggled through Spring Training and spent Summer Camp at the Pirates’ alternate training site in Altoona, Pa. Howard now has 19 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA in 15 outings, and opponents have hit just .182 against him.

“Those are two guys who didn’t even start the year with the club. Then, when they did first get here, they were pitching in lower-leverage roles. They’ve pitched well,” Shelton said. “They’ve seized every opportunity they’ve had. They’ve done a nice job and have continued to put themselves closer to the back end, put themselves closer to leverage situations, by executing pitches.”

Howard throws a wicked slider, and the Pirates have given him freedom to throw it as often as possible in and out of the strike zone. This season, 63.2 percent of his pitches have been sliders. He threw his breaking ball eight times on Sunday, mixing in only three fastballs, while striking out Brian Goodwin in a clean sixth.

“I never knew I could throw it this much,” Howard said. “Just making sure every day my slider's on, that I'm very confident in it and throwing it at the hitter."

Stratton handled the seventh, and Turley struck out two in the eighth. Rodríguez, one of the few relievers in Pittsburgh’s bullpen with prior experience working high-leverage innings in the Majors, pitched a perfect ninth to set up the Pirates’ walk-off rally.

“Everybody’s been stepping up out there,” Tucker said. “Hartlieb’s ballin’. Turley’s ballin’. Strat’s ballin’. Richie’s ballin’. All these guys are showing up. Howard’s ballin’. It’s fun to reward them with a W every once in a while.”