Kuhl, Hayes break out as Pirates walk off

July 7th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- Two of the Pirates’ most dependable players struggled earlier this season, but both seem to be turning it around -- and they proved immensely helpful in Tuesday’s 2-1 walk-off win at PNC Park over the Braves.

slugged, shoved and the Pirates were able to scratch across just enough runs, capped by ' walk-off walk, to make it all matter in the end.

So what’s going right for Hayes and Kuhl -- two key Pirates -- after rough stretches in recent weeks and months? Let’s take a look.

Hey, hey, Hayes
Everyone expects the league to punch back at rookies who get off to blistering starts to their careers.

Major League pitchers have done that to Hayes, who hit .215 in 23 games leading into the Pirates’ series with the Braves after hitting .376 with 14 extra-base hits in his first month in MLB last season. However, he seems to be punching right back.

Hayes has been cranking out extra-base hits over the past two games. The Pirates third baseman hit two doubles on Tuesday, one of which helped Adam Frazier get into position to score on a sacrifice fly by Reynolds. But it’s the consistent exit velocities that stand out, as Hayes struck six balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater in the past two contests, including his first home run since June 11 that he cranked in Monday's 11-1 win.

“I think he’s under his legs better,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I think when he went through that tough stretch, he started to go outside of his zone. He got a little bit off-balance, and his balance looks a lot better.”

For a routine-oriented player like Hayes, who takes his regular ground balls before he does anything else on the field, he feels like this return to that balance -- and the barrel -- has been a product of his cage work. Hayes saw that he was getting his hips firing a bit late, causing his bat to have to play catchup and produce weaker contact.

So Hayes has been “exaggerating” his unload into his swing to make sure he’s got an aggressive cut, and the results in the short run have followed.

“Whenever I'm starting late, things mechanically break down, because I'm trying to speed up to get caught back up,” Hayes said.

Kuhl kid
Kuhl was scuffling early this season after being named the Opening Day starter. He was walking batters regularly. He was laboring through innings at a pace of 20.6 pitches per frame over his first five starts.

Against the Braves, Kuhl turned to his bread-and-butter slider, which he threw 49 percent of the time, to maneuver through six innings with one run allowed. Oddly enough, the one run came on one of the few sliders he hung, which Orlando Arcia cranked for a Statcast-projected 430-foot solo home run to left field in the fifth inning.

“With the exception of the one slider to Arcia, he executed sliders all night,” Shelton said, “and especially the top of that order, that’s difficult to get through.”

Coming off a blister-shortened start, Kuhl also relied on a four-seam fastball that felt a bit more comfortable to grip, though he said it’s one of the pitches that he feels has been hit hardest throughout his career.

“It's been a pitch that has gotten me in the zone,” Kuhl said. “It has gotten me some quick outs as well, so just being able to locate it has just been the biggest thing. We'll see how it goes from here.”

Keeping the walks under control on Tuesday helped Kuhl stay in control of the Braves’ order. The right-hander, who came into the game with three or more walks in six of his 10 previous starts, didn’t allow a free pass to any of the 21 batters he faced. It marks the first time since April 13, 2017, that Kuhl went six innings without allowing a walk.

“The walks have been my issue,” Kuhl said, “so it just feels really good to attack the zone and have it kind of play out, execute when you're down in the count and not give up those free passes.”