Archer dominates in his first start of June

Righty fans six in six-plus frames to lift Bucs by Braves in finale

June 6th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Chris Archer’s day had barely started, and he’d allowed the Braves to take a 1-0 lead when Freddie Freeman launched a homer to deep center on the ninth pitch of the game. Archer slouched with his hands on his knees, dropped his head and then walked around before taking the mound again.

“The reason I put my head down was because [catcher Jacob] Stallings called a different pitch that I should have thrown, should have trusted what he called,” Archer said. “But you know what? I learned, and for the rest of the day, I went pretty much with what he called, and we were pretty successful.”

It was the lone blemish on Archer’s line against the Braves, who he held to one run over six-plus innings in a 6-1 victory on Thursday afternoon at PNC Park, and his day helped the Pirates earn two straight wins for the first time since May 18-19.

The veteran starter faltered throughout May, posting a 7.40 ERA. Archer averaged just over five innings per start, despite throwing more than 90 pitches on average each game.

But Archer cleaned up his game Thursday, needing just 83 pitches to get through six innings. The fourth and fifth innings -- in which he allowed 19 runs over 15 2/3 combined innings entering the day -- were spotless, with just a two-out single to Ozzie Albies allowed.

Archer allowed a leadoff double in the seventh, then lost a 10-pitch battle to Albies, who drew a walk that led manager Clint Hurdle to go to the bullpen. Archer didn’t tire, though -- his second-to-last pitch to Albies (a 96 mph fastball) was his second-fastest pitch of the day.

Archer's slider was crisp against Atlanta. He went to it the most of any pitch, and 26 of his 34 offerings went for strikes, including 10 swinging strikes. That’s the second-most swinging strikes he’s generated on the slider in a start this season.

"Some of those breaking balls he threw, you couldn’t hit,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He was just on. He was hitting his spots. He threw some sliders you just couldn’t hit. He threw the ball really, really well."

But that was set up by an aggressive use of Archer's two-seam and four-seam fastballs, which he threw exclusively in his 11-pitch first inning and in 14 of his first 15 offerings, not allowing the dangerous No. 1, 2 and 3 batters for Atlanta -- Ronald Acuna Jr., Dansby Swanson and Freeman -- to get a read on his slider early. The only one that didn’t work was the one he shook off.

It’s the same philosophy Archer used to go seven innings against the Brewers his last time out in a 9-4 win.

“He basically doubled up on the same kind of concept: pitching off the fastball,” Hurdle said. “Slider’s playing much better because they’re gearing up to hit fastball.”

“Everything stems from my fastball command,” Archer said. “If that’s going and they have to respect that, then my other stuff plays in the strike zone.”

It wasn’t as if there weren’t things to frustrate Archer at the plate. He had to push through the 23 pitches the Braves fouled off, the most he’s allowed this season. Some of the Bucs perceived Archer was pitching with a tight strike zone granted by home-plate umpire Rob Drake, which was enough to draw Hurdle out of the dugout at the end of the third inning for a conference.

But with injuries in the rotation, including those sustained by ace Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams, the Pirates are hoping to see Archer emerge as a leader of this new-look rotation, whether things are going right or wrong. He was acquired from Tampa Bay last season for a package of promising prospects to take on that kind of role.

Alongside Joe Musgrove, who was strong in Wednesday night’s 7-3 win, the Bucs have begun to do just that.

“Somebody’s going to put their foot down,” Hurdle said. “They’re good pitchers. You keep giving them the ball, you keep believing in guys, you keep coaching them up and you keep encouraging them. They know what’s at stake, and they know what they can do and what they need to do.”

Triple double

The Major League leader in doubles kept them coming on Friday, as Josh Bell hit three against Atlanta. Bell got his first day off on Tuesday, after a team off-day on Monday. And that rest has seemed to pay off with four doubles in the past two games, helping to drive in three runs and score two of his own.

“He did some nice work today,” Hurdle said. “Slowed things down, found the barrel again and arrived on time. The last swing was the best swing of the day. … When he goes, we’ve got a chance to do some damage.”

Bell said he spent some time with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, poring over video of what went well during Bell’s torrid May (.390/.442/.797 in 29 games), and he was pleased with the result.

“Just not missing that fastball that I’ve been missing probably the past series and a half now was nice going into this next series,” Bell said. “So hopefully I can push the Brewers back a little bit.”