Brault's 'resolve' a bright spot in Bucs rotation

August 23rd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Not much is going right for the Pirates these days. Their pitching staff isn’t preventing runs nearly well enough, and their lineup isn’t producing enough to make up for it. Both were to blame in the Bucs’ 7-1 loss to the Nationals on Thursday night at PNC Park.

It was the Pirates’ 30th defeat in 38 games since the All-Star break, matching the number of losses they had in the entire second half last season.

One encouraging development for Pittsburgh amid all the second-half misery? ’s emergence as a reliable starting pitcher. Thursday’s game was, in a way, perhaps the best evidence of the strides he has made.

“It was a really good outing for Steven, another big building block for him and a confidence-builder, I’m sure,” Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said. “Really good outing against a very, very good lineup.”

Despite a lack of run support, Brault has continued to prove himself worthy of a spot in the Pirates’ rotation going forward. The lefty held the Nationals’ hot lineup to two first-inning runs on seven hits and one walk while striking out four over six innings in Thursday’s series finale. In 11 outings since rejoining the rotation on May 29, Brault has put together a 2.62 ERA.

This one was a little different than the others before it.

Most of Brault’s recent success stemmed from the consistent execution of his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Facing the Cubs last Saturday, Brault threw 87 percent fastballs and struck out a career-high eight batters over a career-high seven innings. It was a relatively simple game plan, but it worked because Brault executed it so well.

In Brault’s view, that was his first truly dominant outing. On Thursday, he showed that he can make his backup plan work, too.

“I haven’t had one of these where you kind of struggle at the beginning, then be able to make some adjustments and get through six, only keeping them to two runs,” Brault said, acknowledging that a game like this might have gotten away from him in the past.

The Nats, clearly aware of Brault’s heavy fastball usage, came out swinging at heaters over the plate. Trea Turner hit a fastball to left for a leadoff double and scored when Adam Eaton dropped down a bunt single to third baseman Colin Moran, who fired a throw to first base that Josh Bell couldn’t handle. Eaton came around to score after an Anthony Rendon double (on a first-pitch fastball) and an RBI groundout by Howie Kendrick.

“A couple blinks of the eye and we’re down, 2-0. He found some resolve,” Hurdle said. “I think after the second fastball that got whacked, he said, ‘OK, we’re going to mix it up.’ The mix was so solid the rest of the time he was out there.”

Catcher Elias Diaz still leaned heavily on Brault’s fastballs, which accounted for 55 of his 98 pitches against Washington. But Diaz also called for 31 sliders and 11 changeups to keep the Nationals off-balance.

Plan B worked for Brault, mostly because his slider was so effective -- the best it’s been in “a long time,” he said -- but also because he kept the same attitude that helped him succeed. He consistently buried his breaking ball below the strike zone, and the Nats swung and missed on 10 of the 31 sliders he threw.

“[Diaz] was just like, ‘Well, we had to change plans pretty much immediately.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to happen like that sometimes,’” Brault said. “I didn’t want it to come off like I wasn’t attacking. We were still attacking hitters. We were just doing it in a different way, with a different pitch selection. … Same mentality, different pitches.”

As good as Brault has been in his last 11 starts, the Pirates have won only three of them. They’ve had too many nights like this lately.

Pittsburgh’s only run came in the third inning, when Adam Frazier launched his seventh home run of the season off Max Scherzer -- fresh off the injured list -- and into the right-field seats. The Bucs have scored only 10 runs during the first seven games of this homestand.

“We’re not getting the big hit when we need it,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had some challenges against these guys getting the ball in the air.”

The Nationals had no such problem later in the game. Kendrick padded the Nats’ lead in the eighth by ripping a two-run homer to left field against reliever Chris Stratton, who gave up two more runs before getting out of the inning. The plan wasn’t originally to have Stratton pitch the eighth with a one-run deficit, Hurdle said, but setup man Keone Kela was unavailable after becoming “violently sick” during the game.

Rendon tacked on another with a home run in the ninth off Stratton, the 100th homer the Pirates have allowed in 63 home games this season -- 97 at PNC Park and three in the Little League Classic. By comparison, they have hit only 60 homers at home this year.

“I just didn’t have it today, to be honest with you,” said Stratton, who carried a 2.61 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP with the Bucs into Thursday’s game. “They’re making people pay right now. I just didn’t get away with anything.”