Shelton earns first win as Pirates manager

July 27th, 2020

Derek Shelton has some personal history in St. Louis. His parents, Ron and Kathy, spent their first date at Busch Stadium II in 1968. Twenty-four years ago, the year before his professional coaching career began, he attended the Cardinals’ home opener while working for a moving company. He made some more history at Busch Stadium this weekend.

On Friday, Shelton made his long-awaited Major League managerial debut. Then, on Sunday, he picked up his first win as Pittsburgh’s manager as the Pirates beat the Cardinals, 5-1.

In the visitors dugout, Josh Bell and several Pirates players splashed Shelton with water. In the clubhouse, they soaked him with just about everything they could find: beer, baby powder, orange juice, apple juice.

“I got a pretty severe beer shower. I think anybody that knows me knows that I’m [upset] that we wasted that much beer,” Shelton said. “It’s probably the best shower I’ve ever taken.”

After starting the season with two losses, the Pirates played a complete game that gave them plenty to celebrate Sunday evening. But their manager’s first win topped the list.

“It was a blast. Kind of felt like it was my first win again,” starter Mitch Keller said. “Same kind of thing. It’s fun to be a part of on the other end -- not necessarily in the beer shower.”

Here’s what it took to make Shelton’s first managerial win happen.

A strong start
Keller officially shed his title as the Pirates’ top prospect during his season debut, crossing the 50-inning threshold necessary to graduate from prospect status. The right-hander also showed some encouraging signs that he’s ready to be a mainstay in the rotation.

“That’s probably the most important point of this game,” Shelton said. “He stayed consistent. He executed pitches. When he realized certain things weren’t working, he went to other things. No. 1, it’s a credit to [catcher] Jacob [Stallings]. Most importantly, what I take out of the game is another maturation step for Mitch Keller.”

Keller worked without his best fastball, as it clocked in around 3 mph slower than in his debut last season; the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong noted the difference afterward, saying they expected 94-97 mph from him, not 91-92. And Keller found himself in some long at-bats, with only 47 of his 87 pitches going for strikes.

But Keller said he told himself he had to be the stopper after the Pirates lost Saturday night, and he turned out to be exactly that. Keller allowed one run on two hits and three walks while striking out two over five innings.

The Pirates want to see Keller take the next step in his development this year. If he can add velocity and steadier command to the poise and execution he displayed Sunday afternoon, he’ll be well on his way.

“Definitely velocity wasn’t up, but I just trusted Stallings. We had a good game plan and kept them off-balance,” Keller said. “The heater played. It was playing up in velocity even though it wasn’t 97 or whatever it may be. Just saw the swings that they were having, [and those] told me they were behind it because of the other stuff we were using.”

Power’s on
The Pirates only had one extra-base hit in their first two games of the season, prompting early concerns about their lineup. But Shelton said Saturday night, “These guys are going to hit.” On Sunday, they did.

Coming off a strong showing in Summer Camp, Colin Moran swatted the Pirates’ first home run of the season to right field off Dakota Hudson in the fourth inning. After Phillip Evans singled, one of his three hits on the day, José Osuna blasted a two-run shot a Statcast-projected 429 feet out to center field to put the Bucs ahead, 3-1.

"I think it puts a big weight off a lot of guys' shoulders in the dugout -- the guys who hit them as well, Colin and Osuna,” said Evans, who later provided insurance with an RBI double in the eighth inning. “Just glad to be a part of getting on base for those guys and doing whatever we can to help this team win."

Something Bru-ing
With Keller exiting the game after five innings and a handful of relievers unavailable after pitching earlier in this series, Shelton needed a bridge from his starter to the back end of the bullpen.

Enter JT Brubaker, the 26-year-old right-hander who missed most of last season due to a strained forearm. He was optioned to Triple-A during Spring Training, but he made the most of his second chance in Summer Camp and earned a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. With the Bucs protecting a three-run lead in the sixth inning, Shelton called upon Brubaker to make his Major League debut.

“Didn’t really hit me until I set foot on the infield dirt,” Brubaker said. “As soon as I stepped on it, it hit me -- the adrenaline, the nerves, the excitement, everything that I envisioned growing up through high school, college, then even through the Minors. It was everything I’ve envisioned, even without the fans.”

Brubaker rewarded Shelton’s confidence in him by blowing away the Cardinals for two innings, striking out four as they whiffed on eight of his 28 pitches.

“His stuff was really nasty. I couldn’t be happier for him,” Keller said. “He’s going to be a guy that’s going to be huge for us this season and in years to come.”

Closing it out
It’s no secret that the Pirates are searching for solutions in their bullpen. Their relievers were hit hard on Friday and Saturday, and they’re without two key arms in closer Keone Kela and right-hander Edgar Santana. But two of their biggest arms put up zeros to finish Shelton’s first victory.

Right-hander Michael Feliz struck out Wong in a perfect eighth inning then gave way to Nick Burdi, who had all of 10 innings to his name after being set back the last few years by Tommy John surgery and neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.

Burdi fired 99-mph fastballs and spun sliders right by the heart of the Cardinals' order, striking out the side in the ninth. Then came the celebration.

“How was your guys’ day?” Shelton said as he sat down for his postgame interview. “Mine was pretty good.”