PITTSBURGH -- After his penultimate start of the season, Steven Brault said he wanted to stop thinking and start being a “freaking throwing machine” on the mound. That meant trusting his stuff, trusting his defense and, as much as anything, trusting catcher Jacob Stallings.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Stallings delivered the final blow in the Pirates’ 3-2 walk-off win over the Cubs on Tuesday night at PNC Park. Brault’s new mentality carried him through seven scoreless innings -- including four hitless frames that gave him 10 consecutive hitless innings dating to his last outing -- in his final start of the season, and Stallings finished the night with a walk-off homer off lefty reliever Andrew Chafin to snap Pittsburgh’s five-game losing streak.
"I mean, I'll celebrate whatever I can get, whether it's offense or defense,” Stallings said. “Obviously, that's a cool moment -- one, frankly, I was never really sure I'd do, just because I don't hit many homers.”
It was Stallings’ third home run of the season and the third walk-off hit of his career but, indeed, his first walk-off home run in the Majors. The Pirates haven’t had many moments to celebrate this year, as Tuesday was just their 16th win in 55 games, but this one qualified.
“He’s great. I’m so happy for him,” Brault said. “That was really cool.”
Stallings is a popular player in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse, highly regarded for his preparation, work ethic and attention to detail. Manager Derek Shelton has recently gone out of his way to vouch for Stallings as being worthy of a Gold Glove Award, and pitchers regularly laud the 30-year-old’s work behind the plate.
That’s especially true for Brault, who has put together the two best outings of his career since essentially ceding control to Stallings. Before his last two starts, Brault has eschewed the traditional pregame scouting reports and meetings, opting to follow Stallings’ lead. After a few short outings, Brault wanted to think less and pitch more.
The results? A complete-game two-hitter last Thursday and seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball with six strikeouts on Tuesday night.
“Seemed to work,” Brault said. “I don't know if I'm going to change that in the future.”
The last time a Pirates starting pitcher put together consecutive starts of at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer hits each time out? Doug Drabek on July 29 and Aug. 3, 1990, the year Drabek won the National League Cy Young Award.
“It feels really good. Honestly, I've never finished a big league season on a high note," Brault said. "I've always gone into the offseason thinking there's something I have to work on or something I've really got to do. I'm excited to go in this year with kind of the feeling of like, ‘Time to perfect my craft,’ which I never will do -- nobody ever will do. … So I'm excited. It's going to be a different offseason than years before.”
A couple impressive outings might not significantly alter the trajectory of Brault’s career, of course, but they have reinforced his ability as a starter at this level. Having bounced between the rotation and the bullpen over the past few years, he has seemingly staked his claim on a spot in Pittsburgh’s 2021 rotation.
Brault began the season as a tandem starter with a limited pitch count, and he’ll finish the year with 13 consecutive scoreless innings -- the longest streak by a Pirates pitcher this season -- and a 2.53 ERA to go along with a 1.08 WHIP and a .185 opponents’ batting average in 10 appearances as a starter. On the day the Cubs clinched a spot in the postseason, the lefty held them to two singles and three walks while throwing 94 pitches over seven innings.
“I feel like I proved it to myself, and I think that’s what matters the most. Proved to myself in these last two starts that I can go deep in games if I’m over the plate consistently,” Brault said. “Trusting your defense, not only that, but just trusting that you have the ability to get outs in the zone and throwing the ball in the zone. I proved it to myself, I guess, and that’s good for me, mentally.”
Brault didn’t give up a hit until Cameron Maybin’s ground ball kicked off second baseman Adam Frazier’s glove with one out in the fifth.
“I think that says it all right there,” Stallings said.
Brault walked Ian Happ, the first batter he faced on Tuesday, at which point Stallings trotted to the mound for a conversation that he called “the sternest I’ve ever been with Steven.” Stallings thought Brault was getting too mechanical and worrying about his delivery rather than getting outs -- and Brault responded by striking out Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo.
Stallings ended the top of the first by throwing out Happ at second base. Brault reeled off six more scoreless innings with Stallings behind the plate.
Who better to end the bottom of the ninth than Stallings?
“Not only is he helping those pitchers grow, but I think we’re seeing him grow," Shelton said. "There’s a guy there that’s an elite receiver, an elite thrower, and again, in my mind, a guy that should win the Gold Glove. I think we’re seeing him turn into a leader. He’s having more energy. He’s having better patience. He’s doing a lot of things that we’ve challenged him on.
“It’s nice to see him reap the benefits of a walk-off homer against the best team in our division. It’s a really cool moment.”