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Keller matches rare NL feat with 11 hitless IP

@adamdberry
September 26, 2020

Pirates starter Mitch Keller ended his season with a hitless streak that evoked statistical comparisons ranging from Johnny Vander Meer to Dock Ellis to Jason Schmidt. After throwing six hitless innings against the Cardinals last Saturday, Keller didn’t allow a hit against the Indians over five innings in the Pirates’

Pirates starter Mitch Keller ended his season with a hitless streak that evoked statistical comparisons ranging from Johnny Vander Meer to Dock Ellis to Jason Schmidt.

After throwing six hitless innings against the Cardinals last Saturday, Keller didn’t allow a hit against the Indians over five innings in the Pirates’ 4-3 loss on Friday night at Progressive Field. According to STATS LLC, Keller became the first National League pitcher to complete back-to-back no-hit outings of at least five innings each since Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters on June 11-15, 1938.

Box score

“Obviously we’d prefer more strikes, but I think it just shows the quality of his stuff,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “The fact that he ends the season with 11 straight no-hit innings, that’s pretty damn good.”

The Pirates bullpen carried the no-hit bid into the seventh, when No. 9-hitting center fielder Delino DeShields broke it up with a clean bunt single. DeShields delivered a game-tying single to drive in Jordan Luplow in the ninth, then scored the winning run when Cesar Hernandez ripped a double down the right-field line off reliever Chris Stratton.

“I don’t think anybody was thinking about the no-hitter. I think we were just more thinking about putting up a zero on the board and giving our team a win,” Keller said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that. Strat probably feels terrible, but he’s been nails all season for us.”

Their loss and the Rangers’ win on Friday guaranteed the Pirates (18-40) will at least share the worst record in the Majors this season. The 2021 Draft order has not yet been set, but if it is determined by the '20 standings with '19 records as the tiebreaker, Pittsburgh will have the top pick.

Keller walked only two batters while throwing 84 pitches in his start against St. Louis, but he was uncharacteristically wild against Cleveland. The right-hander walked the first three hitters he faced and, on his third, slipped and fell while spiking a pitch about 5 feet in front of home plate.

After a visit from head athletic trainer Bryan Housand, Keller got out of the inning with two pitches: a fastball that induced a run-scoring double-play grounder from Carlos Santana and a slider that Franmil Reyes hit back to Keller, who flipped it to Colin Moran for the final out.

“He was effectively wild,” Cleveland acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “The kid has a good arm, but we helped him out right there in that inning. He walked three guys, gave up a run and then he got out of the inning on two pitches. So, we helped him out a little bit.”

Overall, Keller issued eight free passes in five innings on Friday. Only half of his 98 pitches were strikes. The 24-year-old right-hander’s eight walks were the most by a Pirates pitcher since Schmidt also walked eight against the Reds on Sept. 18, 1996. The last Pirates pitcher to walk eight batters without allowing a hit? Ellis, in his famous no-no on June 12, 1970.

“Something was off. It just didn’t feel the same,” Keller said. “I think [catcher Jacob] Stallings and I did a great job of finding what was working, throwing offspeed, spin, just anything to get a strike and anything to get ‘em out. Thankfully, it worked.”

With two outs in the fourth, Josh Bell broke up Carlos Carrasco’s no-hit bid with a single to right before Gregory Polanco crushed a home run, with an exit velocity of 113 mph per Statcast, out to right field. Those two left the bases loaded in the sixth, however, as Bell struck out and Polanco hit into an inning-ending double play.

In his last two starts, the Pirates had reason to remove Keller even in the midst of a no-hit bid. Keller, who began the season as Pittsburgh’s top prospect, was sidelined for six weeks this summer due to a strained left oblique. He was on a pitch count in each of his three outings since his return from the 10-day injured list, working his way up from 65 on Sept. 14 to 84 last time out and 98 against Cleveland.

As wild as he was on Friday, Keller’s last few outings showed why the Pirates are counting on him to be a mainstay in their rotation for years to come. In 14 innings over his final three starts, he allowed four runs on two hits with 13 strikeouts despite his 14 walks.

“If you take away the walks there, my last two outings were really good for me,” Keller said. “Even with those walks, I found a way to get through it.”

When Keller left his previous outing, Pittsburgh’s bullpen promptly blew the no-hitter and the lead as three relievers combined to allow five runs in the seventh inning of an eventual 5-4 loss to the Cardinals. Left-hander Nik Turley came on in relief of Keller on Friday and worked a perfect sixth.

On came Sam Howard in the seventh. The lefty struck out pinch-hitter Luplow then walked Sandy Leon. Seeing an opportunity, DeShields dropped a well-placed bunt between the mound and Moran. Both Howard and Moran rushed to retrieve the ball, leaving nobody at first base.

"To be honest, I completely forgot about it, and after the inning, I realized that bunt broke up a no-hitter,” Howard said. “Wasn't happy about that, but it's a smart play by a hitter. Push bunt on a lefty pitcher, he put it in the right spot, and I don't know if either one of us could have got him. I'll know next time to go after it and see if I can't run him down the line."

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