PITTSBURGH -- In one swift motion Chase De Jong rotated towards center field, clenched his fists and let out a cathartic yell. He escaped the pressure cooker, striking out a multi-time All-Star to end an inning. As he walked back to the third-base dugout, he could take satisfaction in knowing he fulfilled his obligation.
De Jong served as one of the few bright spots in the Pirates’ 6-0 loss to the Phillies on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, throwing three scoreless innings of relief and extending his personal scoreless streak to 13 1/3 innings.
“He’s been huge,” said manager Derek Shelton. “Every time he’s come in the game, he’s kept us in the game. Again, another nice outing by Chase. He’s continued to throw the ball about as well as anybody we have.”
Similar to Zach Thompson on Friday, De Jong had initiative: provide length and keep the Pirates in the game.
After Tyler Beede exited the ballgame after allowing a season-worst six runs in three innings, Pittsburgh needed De Jong to get the bullpen to the game’s later innings. De Jong checked that box, keeping the Phillies quiet in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings and recording his fifth consecutive scoreless outing.
De Jong’s only trouble arrived in his final frame. Kyle Schwarber began the inning with a single, then advanced to second base on Rhys Hoskins’s groundout. After De Jong got Alec Bohm to ground out, Bryce Harper strode to the plate with an opportunity to add insurance. The Philadelphia faithful showered Harper, who returned on Friday after missing two months due to a left thumb injury, with resounding applause. The cheers quickly turned to boos when Shelton held up four fingers, electing to intentionally walk Harper.
That decision put two runners on base for J.T. Realmuto, who had already hurt the Pirates with a bases-clearing, three-run double in the first, giving the Phillies a lead they never relinquished. Here, Realmuto had an opportunity to inflict even more damage.
De Jong began the battle with two four-seam fastballs. Both heaters missed well above the strike zone -- easy takes. The right-hander knew he didn’t have a feel for his four-seamer. With the count in Realmuto’s favor, De Jong abandoned the heat and opted for the funk: he was going to live and die with the slider.
With a pair of sliders, De Jong got the count even -- two balls, two strikes. He went back to the slider well for the fifth pitch of the plate appearance, and Realmuto fouled it off. On the sixth pitch, De Jong tossed his fourth consecutive slider. The pitch caught too much zone for De Jong’s liking -- he admitted his slider execution wasn’t perfect -- but the two-time Silver Slugger flailed and missed anyhow. Inning over.
“So right there, first and second, two outs, I got to go with my best pitch, and the self-evaluator in me was like, ‘You know what? The slider’s the best pitch right here,’” De Jong said. “We threw four in a row. They weren’t the best executed ones. They were up in the zone, but we got swings-and-misses with a guy in scoring position.
“Kudos to [Tyler] Heineman for keying in on that and understanding, ‘Hey, this is what’s working right now.’ It’s not about trying to establish something. It’s not about, ‘What’s this guy’s best pitch?’ It’s, ‘What’s his best pitch tonight, right now to get this guy out?’ He did a really good job of recognizing that.”
De Jong has turned out these outings with regularity. As one of several starters-turned-relievers, De Jong has excelled in his new role, posting a 2.01 ERA across a career-high 53 2/3 innings. Contrast that with his numbers last season, where he posted a 5.77 ERA in nine starts.
The right-hander doesn’t have one definitive reason as to why he’s had success as a reliever, but he floated his theories. As a starter, De Jong regularly faced lineups three, if not four, times; now, he faces most hitters just once per outing. De Jong also highlighted his repertoire, one he has simplified over the last half-decade.
De Jong featured five pitches when he debuted as a starter with the Mariners. He primarily threw his fastball, then utilized a changeup, curveball, slider and sinker as his secondary pitches. This season, by contrast, De Jong has essentially eliminated his sinker and changeup, rolling with just his four-seamer, slider and curveball.
“I have a fastball and two breaking balls,” De Jong said. “Not having to throw a show-me changeup or something like that just gives me the ability to be more effective, be more efficient, just go right after guys.”