Early call, late onslaught sink Pirates' hopes for sweep

June 10th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates were not quite able to complete a sweep of the Twins at PNC Park Sunday afternoon, as a Minnesota outburst against in the 10th led to an 11-5 loss.

Should that game have even gone to extra innings? That’s up for debate.

With two on in the first inning, starter Jared Jones went high and tight on a fastball to Byron Buxton that appeared to catch the bat and careen at a different angle. However, it was ruled a live ball, resulting in a passed ball called on Henry Davis and a run scored.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton went out to request if any umpire had that as a swing or a foul ball, and after a convergence of the umpiring crew, none of them had it as a foul. It was a non-reviewable play, too, so there was no reason to burn the challenge on that call either.

Jones rebounded after his three-run first inning to give five frames with no extra damage, but extra innings might have been avoided had that been ruled a foul and the run taken off the board. Davis didn’t want to look at it that way, and he empathized with home plate umpire Ryan Wills having to make the call because the catcher’s glove was right in front of his mask.

“We're better than any one call,” Davis said. “That's not the deciding factor in the game. Obviously, when you get to the end, it feels like that when you look back in hindsight, but I had an opportunity to come through myself. We had plenty of opportunities.”

The Pirates would go on to take the lead on a three-run fifth, with Davis starting the two-out rally with a walk, but they couldn’t hold it.

“I think the frustrating part is we can get that right,” Davis said. “I don't think anybody would expect [perfection]. [The umpires are] human beings, right? Every night, they're doing their best on every call.”

Heller’s Pirates career hasn’t exactly gotten off to the best start. After allowing five runs in his debut with the club Thursday, he was the last man standing in the bullpen Sunday since four relievers were unavailable due to high usage recently (David Bednar, Colin Holderman, Luis L. Ortiz and Carmen Mlodzinski) and everyone else had appeared in the game. That left the 10th inning to him.

Heller allowed seven runs (six earned), hit three batters and had to wear an inning that just kept going.

“I feel terrible for the team, for myself,” Heller said. “I feel like I'm squandering my own opportunity to be here. Yeah, it's frustrating. At the end of the day, I cost the team a win. So just gotta be better.”

Heller’s promotion to the Majors was in part due to an opt-out in his contract. During his 93.7 The Fan radio show Sunday, general manager Ben Cherington said another team was going to give Heller a Major League opportunity if the Pirates didn’t, and the club didn’t want to lose him.

There was a lot to like in his sample size of 15 games with Triple-A Indianapolis and a three-game rehab assignment with Single-A Bradenton. He got a ton of whiffs, including 36 percent on his four-seamer, 64.9 percent on his cutter and 69.6 percent on his sweeper. Shelton described the sweeper as too “side to side” right now.

“It was great stuff there,” said Davis, who caught Heller in Indianapolis. “Obviously, it's a different game. There's adjustments that need to be made, and I think just stay the course and believe in your abilities. You're in this locker room for a reason.”

It was two rough outings. Given Cherington’s comments -- and hardly a plethora of Major League-ready options at Triple-A Indianapolis -- it seems reasonable to expect Heller will get a third chance.

“Gotta have a short memory,” Heller said. “I know what I can do. I know I'm here for a reason. You don't get to play this game until you're 32 years old as a right-handed relief pitcher unless you're pretty dang good. I know what I'm capable of, and I'm determined to figure it out.”

As Meat Loaf once belted, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

That’s two series wins in a homestand against the Twins and Dodgers, two teams with October dreams coming off division titles. Now the Pirates will finally get a crack at the Cardinals for the first time this season, and they’ll host the Reds for the first time after this road trip.

If they are building a head of steam, they need to cash in with some divisional wins.