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Brault makes case to stick in rotation

Lefty pitches well into seventh, but Bucs' bullpen continues to struggle
@adamdberry
June 9, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- Left-hander Steven Brault couldn’t have done much more on Sunday afternoon to secure his spot in the Pirates’ rotation. He pitched into the seventh inning for the first time in his career, giving Pittsburgh the kind of start the club desperately needed after a pair of abbreviated outings

MILWAUKEE -- Left-hander Steven Brault couldn’t have done much more on Sunday afternoon to secure his spot in the Pirates’ rotation. He pitched into the seventh inning for the first time in his career, giving Pittsburgh the kind of start the club desperately needed after a pair of abbreviated outings at Miller Park.

But the Pirates couldn’t finish Brault’s quality start. Richard Rodriguez gave up the game-tying single in the seventh, and the Brewers pulled ahead in the eighth to beat the Bucs, 5-2, and finish off a three-game sweep. The Pirates are now a season-worst four games below .500.

Box score

The way things are going for their bullpen, it seems no lead is safe. Their relievers have put together a 5.39 ERA this season. They have lost nine games in which they held a lead after six innings after going 66-6 last season when carrying a lead into the seventh.

“It’s tough, obviously. You want to win those games, those close games,” Brault said. “But it doesn’t always go your way. It was a good outing, and we’ll build on that. We’re pretty excited to go to Atlanta and get a fresh start and get our legs underneath us and go fight those guys.”

Facing a loaded lineup in front of a sold-out crowd of 45,375, Brault shut down the Brewers for 6 1/3 innings in the longest start of his Major League career. Before the seventh, the only run he allowed came on a sixth-inning homer off the bat of reigning National League MVP Award-winner Christian Yelich.

Brault relied on his fastball, pounded the strike zone and quickly worked his way through Milwaukee’s lineup. Right-handed hitters entered the day with a .305/.431/.526 slash line and more walks (18) than strikeouts (14) against Brault this season, but he held the Brewers’ right-handed bats to three hits, all singles, and three walks.

Brault basically did it all with one pitch -- or two, given the way his four-seam and two-seam fastballs were behaving. Sixty-eight of his 83 pitches were fastballs, according to Statcast, which allowed him to cruise into the seventh with a 2-1 lead.

“When I go into attack mode, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” Brault said. “As long as I can be in the zone early in counts, I’m able to get ahead of hitters and I’m able to put them away. Their swings aren’t as good. That’s what’s really important for me.”

Manager Clint Hurdle gave Brault a chance to pitch through the seventh against the bottom of the Brewers’ lineup, but Brault went away from his fastball and threw almost exclusively offspeed stuff as two of their first three hitters reached safely.

“I wanted to give him a hug, basically, after what we’d seen to get us into the seventh,” Hurdle said. “Then I just felt [we should] get some guys that are experienced pitching that time of the game to try to get the last outs."

So out went Brault, and in came Rodriguez.

Why Rodriguez? The right-hander’s performance had stabilized somewhat after an ugly, homer-filled start, as his three most recent outings before Sunday were scoreless. Hurdle also cited Rodriguez’s track record when entering a jam -- he had allowed five of his 10 inherited runners to score this season. Last season, Rodriguez let only four of his 28 inherited runners cross the plate.

With two on and one out, the Brewers sent pinch-hitter Ben Gamel to the plate. Gamel worked a full count, then smacked a fastball to left field to tie the score. Rodriguez walked Lorenzo Cain but retired Yelich and Ryan Braun to keep it tied.

Rather than turn to setup man Kyle Crick in the eighth, Hurdle called upon lefty Francisco Liriano.

The Pirates wanted switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal to bat right-handed, but Liriano wound up walking him. They liked the matchup with Mike Moustakas, too, as the lefty-swinging infielder was just 3-for-21 in his career against Liriano.

But Liriano missed his spot with a 1-0 fastball, and Moustakas continued to torment the Pirates by blasting a tie-breaking, two-run homer to right-center field. Moustakas has five home runs in six games against Pittsburgh this season and 12 in 21 career games against the Bucs.

“I was trying to go away, and I just missed down the middle,” Liriano said. “He got a pretty good swing on it. He’s a great hitter, too.”

After the Pirates brought in Geoff Hartlieb to relieve Liriano, Orlando Arcia hit a sacrifice fly to pad Milwaukee’s lead.

Crick and Felipe Vazquez, the Bucs’ two best relievers, did not pitch at all in this series. Crick warmed up in the ninth while Josh Hader closed out the game.

“I needed to make decisions better for us to win that game, 2-1,” Hurdle said. “That’s the way we could have won the game. I made decisions that didn’t work out that way.”

The Pirates would have had to win, 2-1, because one swing represented the totality of their offensive attack. Starting his first game since coming off the injured list due to a left side strain, Jung Ho Kang clobbered the first pitch he saw from Milwaukee starter Chase Anderson off the Miller Lite sign below the scoreboard in center field, a 457-foot shot that gave the Bucs a two-run lead in the second.

“Definitely better than before,” Kang said through interpreter Jeffrey Kim. “Playing more games, [it] will get better.”

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