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Archer's gem undone by Pirates bullpen

Starter K's nine over seven frames before lead vanishes in eighth
@adamdberry
April 13, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Last year, every late-inning lead felt safe in the hands of Pittsburgh’s bullpen. Thirteen games into this season, the Pirates are still searching for that sense of comfort. The Pirates carried a one-run lead into the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park. Rather than turn to

WASHINGTON -- Last year, every late-inning lead felt safe in the hands of Pittsburgh’s bullpen. Thirteen games into this season, the Pirates are still searching for that sense of comfort.

The Pirates carried a one-run lead into the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park. Rather than turn to setup man Keone Kela, who has given up a home run in three of his last five outings, Pittsburgh asked right-hander Richard Rodriguez to set up closer Felipe Vázquez. But Rodriguez surrendered back-to-back two-out homers to Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick, wasting a strong start by Chris Archer in the Pirates’ 3-2 loss.

Different pitcher, same inning, same problem. The Pirates have now allowed 10 runs and six homers during the eighth inning in their first 13 games of the season.

They finished last season with a 69-3 record in games they led after seven innings. Already this year, they have lost three games in which they held a lead heading into the eighth.

"It sucks. It's frustrating. We played a great game. Our margin for error is small,” Archer said. “Some good hitters put some good swings on some balls, and sometimes that's the way it goes."

Kela gave up a game-tying homer to Anthony Rendon in the eighth inning on Friday, although the Pirates rallied to win, 6-3, in 10 innings. As they attempt to get him back on track, the Pirates are regulating Kela’s workload by using him every other day. With righty Kyle Crick on the injured list, that left Rodriguez as their top setup option on Saturday.

“We’re trying to give [Kela] a little space,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Rodriguez has been on a nice roll since the first two times he touched the ball.”

Rodriguez allowed a homer in each of his first two outings, but he rebounded with five scoreless, hitless appearances -- a stretch that included his first Major League save. He retired the first two hitters he faced on Saturday and got ahead of Eaton, 0-2. Rodriguez looked like he had Eaton rung up on a 2-2 fastball, but it was called a ball and the at-bat continued.

Eaton eventually launched a full-count fastball to right field to tie the game. Kendrick hammered the next pitch out to left. Just like that, the Pirates were down by a run heading into the ninth inning against Nationals closer Sean Doolittle.

“You’ve got to finish stuff up here. That team stayed in the fight,” Hurdle said. “Last night, we stayed in the fight. Good baseball. Short today.”

Kang getting rest during hitless spell

The Pirates’ late-inning arms looked to be a strength heading into the season, and that could ultimately turn out to be the case. Their bullpen didn’t even begin to take shape last year until, coincidentally enough, April 13, when they called up Crick and Rodriguez from Triple-A. They have dropped a handful of games this season, but Pittsburgh’s players remain confident in their relief corps.

“Still have ultra confidence. A couple games here or there, but it’s April. It’s early. We have a lot of baseball left,” Archer said. “I’m fully confident and fully convicted in what those guys can do.”

Pittsburgh’s starters, meanwhile, have lived up to the hype. Archer put together his best outing in a Pirates uniform, holding the Nats to one run while striking out nine over seven innings. Archer owns a 2.00 ERA after three starts, and the Bucs’ rotation has compiled a 1.78 ERA overall.

Archer used a legitimate four-pitch mix, complementing his fastball and slider with a quality changeup and the occasional curveball. The only run he allowed came in the fourth, when Anthony Rendon doubled and scored on a two-out single by Kurt Suzuki.

“I felt good, but it’s a little bittersweet because we didn’t win the game,” Archer said. “Just replaying back, I wish I could have executed a little better to Suzuki and our team would have been in a different spot in the eighth inning.”

Archer was the Pirates’ marquee acquisition at last year’s Trade Deadline, but they’re also benefiting from a move they quietly made only days before Spring Training began. Veteran right fielder Melky Cabrera, signed to a Minor League deal on Feb. 11, ripped a go-ahead homer to right off Anibal Sanchez in the sixth inning.

Pittsburgh’s starters, meanwhile, have lived up to the hype. Archer put together his best outing in a Pirates uniform, holding the Nats to one run while striking out nine over seven innings. Archer owns a 2.00 ERA after three starts, and the Bucs’ rotation has compiled a 1.78 ERA overall.

Archer used a legitimate four-pitch mix, complementing his fastball and slider with a quality changeup and the occasional curveball. The only run he allowed came in the fourth, when Anthony Rendon doubled and scored on a two-out single by Kurt Suzuki.

“I felt good, but it’s a little bittersweet because we didn’t win the game,” Archer said. “Just replaying back, I wish I could have executed a little better to Suzuki and our team would have been in a different spot in the eighth inning.”

Archer was the Pirates’ marquee acquisition at last year’s Trade Deadline, but they’re also benefiting from a move they quietly made only days before Spring Training began. Veteran right fielder Melky Cabrera, signed to a Minor League deal on Feb. 11, ripped a go-ahead homer to right off Anibal Sanchez in the sixth inning.

The 34-year-old switch-hitter, who was still waiting to sign with anyone this time a year ago, is hitting .432 and helping the Pirates withstand their rash of outfield injuries.

“Melky bangs. Melky has always banged his entire career,” Archer said. “He can swing the bat. He puts the barrel on the baseball. I faced him a lot in the American League. No, I’m not surprised.”

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