Cahill keeps potent Padres' bats 'off balance'

April 13th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates got a much-needed turnaround Monday night from a veteran who figures to be a big part of their pitching plans in 2021, but a stumble by a young arm sent the team to a 6-2 loss at PNC Park.

went five innings with just one run allowed against eight strikeouts vs. the hot-hitting Padres. He racked up two more strikeouts in his five innings than San Diego starter Yu Darvish, who finished as the runner-up for the 2020 National League Cy Young Award while with the Cubs, recorded in his seven innings.

Cahill’s success is a welcome sign for the Pirates after the 11-year Major Leaguer was hit hard last Tuesday, leading to seven runs on nine hits in four innings in Cincinnati. In fact, Cahill said he threw a few mistake pitches that fortunately weren’t hit by the Reds. The Padres could barely square him up on Monday, though, recording just three singles.

Cahill worked on a balanced diet of all five of his offerings: a sinker, a cutter, a changeup, a four-seam fastball and a knuckle curve. The separation between his most-used pitch (sinker) and least-used pitch (knuckle curve) was only six pitches.

“We knew he was going to have to mix and match, and he did it,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He kind of kept them off balance. That's a good offense that can hurt you a bunch of different ways. He had them looking [for] fastball when he was throwing breaking balls, and looking [for] breaking balls when he was throwing fastballs.”

The most effective pitch was Cahill’s cutter, which drew seven whiffs from the Padres’ batters. That’s tied for the second-most swings and misses on the offering, behind the eight he induced on April 20, 2019, vs. the Angels.

One of the lacking ingredients in Cahill’s first game from Shelton’s perspective was sharpness on the right-hander’s curveball. Shelton said he felt the pitch came up a little short, making it less of a weapon and allowing the Reds, who came slugging out of the gate this season, a chance to jump on Cahill’s fastballs.

Both Shelton and Cahill thought it played better on Monday, though Cahill admits if he had the answer to what will make his curveball effective on a consistent basis, he’d be a pitching coach.

“The more you throw in competitive game action, the more comfortable you get, because the hitters tell you,” he said.

The changeup is still a work in progress for Cahill, though he got a few ground-ball outs with it Monday. But in terms of his whole repertoire, it was the closest he’s felt to having everything back in working order.

“I feel like you’re never really satisfied, but I think I’m definitely getting to where I’m being comfortable out there,” Cahill said. “It seems like a regular-season game form.”

The one thing Cahill was missing? The early cushion the offense had provided in Saturday and Sunday's wins, which made the five runs allowed in his 1 2/3 innings of relief insurmountable for the Pirates. However, Cahill, who has pitched 226 games as a starter and 127 games as a reliever, knows the challenges that the 21-year-old Oviedo is facing as he moves from being a starter his entire Minor League career to his new role as a reliever.

“When I was a starter and came out of the bullpen for the first time, I almost had to call the trainer because my heart was beating so fast, and that was eight, nine years in,” Cahill said. “What he’s going through right now and how he’s handling it -- and just missing, too -- is pretty impressive. He’s just got to keep it going.”

The Pirates are still working to get Cahill up to his top endurance level. The right-hander was signed as a free agent well into spring camp, on March 12, and had to go through intake screening before he could see live game action.

Cahill’s 82 pitches on Monday show he’s pretty close to being back to his usual length, and the Pirates hope that means he’ll be back to giving the team plenty of quality innings in a season that will require enhanced innings management.

“I feel like I should be up to normal now,” Cahill said.