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Notes: Keller to face Cubs; Shelton home

@adamdberry
July 31, 2020

There was a brief phase, lasting about a year, when Mitch Keller considered himself a Cubs fan. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about a four-hour drive from Wrigley Field. While his summers were typically busy with his own baseball games and practices, he made his way to the

There was a brief phase, lasting about a year, when Mitch Keller considered himself a Cubs fan. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about a four-hour drive from Wrigley Field. While his summers were typically busy with his own baseball games and practices, he made his way to the Friendly Confines for a few games. But he’s still not sure what sparked his short-lived fandom.

“I just remember having this Cubs hat that I would wear all the time, probably when I was like 10 or something,” Keller said Friday afternoon. “I honestly have no idea.”

Still, Keller acknowledged it will be special for him to start at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, live on MLB.TV at 8:15 p.m. ET. The rookie right-hander faced the Cubs twice last year -- first at the Little League Classic then later at PNC Park, but he never faced them in Chicago. Even without fans crammed into the historic ballpark’s seats, Keller is looking forward to his second start of the season.

“I’m excited about it. It’s going to be different than a normal one here, because the whole thing about Wrigley is the fans and the atmosphere it brings,” Keller said. “It’s not going to be the same, but it’ll definitely still be a cool experience.”

Beset by bad luck during his debut season, Keller pitched well without his usual high-end stuff against the Cardinals on Sunday. His fastball, which averaged 95.4 mph last season, clocked in at 92 mph. But he still held St. Louis to one run on two hits while walking three batters and striking out two over five innings, picking up the victory in Pittsburgh’s 5-1 win at Busch Stadium.

“I didn’t have my best stuff my last start, but I managed to get through it. Put in some work here between starts,” Keller said. “Hopefully I can get some better stuff. Just really looking forward to throwing some more first-pitch strikes and getting ahead and staying ahead and taking those long counts … out of the picture.”

Keller said he didn’t have an answer for the drop in fastball velocity. When he and pitching coach Oscar Marin reviewed video of his outing, nothing that might have caused it stood out. It may have just been one of those days, as Keller said his fastball sat at 95 mph the previous time he faced hitters. He threw his between-starts bullpen session with Rapsodo technology tracking every pitch and said his arsenal looked “really good.”

“Velo was great,” Keller said. “Hopefully tomorrow will be the same.”

Another happy return
Pirates manager Derek Shelton also has ties to Chicago, one reason he was initially excited to visit Wrigley Field during the first road trip on the Pirates’ original 2020 schedule. Those plans were obviously scrapped, but Shelton finally made it to Chicago on Thursday, his 50th birthday.

Shelton was born in Carbondale, Ill., about 350 miles south of Wrigley Field, and he played four seasons at Southern Illinois University. He also attended Warren Township High School in nearby Gurnee. Under normal circumstances, he’d have been accommodating all sorts of ticket requests from friends and family.

Still, Shelton was able to reflect on the memory of his first game at Wrigley Field. He attended with his father, Ron, who was looking forward to watching the Giants’ first baseman: Willie McCovey.

“It’s very cool,” Shelton said. “My parents’ friends had really good seats, and we used to come in and sit right behind the visitors’ dugout. I think anytime you go back to a place that you went to when you were a child is pretty cool.”

Around the horn
• Left-hander Steven Brault, who pitched in Monday’s home opener as part of the Bucs’ tandem-start plan with Chad Kuhl, will start Sunday’s series finale at Wrigley Field. The Pirates will presumably utilize their piggyback plan again during that game.

• After assigning only catcher Andrew Susac to their taxi squad during their season-opening trip to St. Louis, the Pirates are carrying three extra players on this trip to Chicago and Minnesota: Susac, right-hander Cody Ponce and lefty reliever Sam Howard. Both Ponce and Howard are on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, and Shelton said they will get a chance to throw bullpen sessions in front of Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage during the trip.

“If we have a chance to get eyes on people, it's a wise idea to do it,” Shelton said. “And because of our [position] player flexibility with our roster, we didn't have to carry a position player besides Susac."

Players on the taxi squad are permitted to work out with their team before games, and catchers can remain in the bullpen during games to catch. Otherwise, they are subject to the same roster/transaction rules as any other player at the club’s alternate training site.

• In light of Friday’s news that two Cardinals players tested positive for COVID-19, Keller said it was “an eye-opening experience for all of us that it can happen to any team at any time, really.” Shelton said the Pirates have met as a team several times this season to answer questions about players’ health and safety, to discuss protocols unique to this season and to encourage players to be responsible.

“I think our guys are doing a heck of a job. I think they’re following the protocols. I think we’ve done a good job organizationally,” Shelton said, noting that the Pirates were the first team to have their Spring Training facility deep-cleaned back in March. “We have to be mindful, because as we’ve talked about, you can contract this virus very easily in doing general things even if you do follow the protocol. Where it becomes a problem is if we’re not. To my knowledge, and to our guys’ credit, they’ve done a good job following protocols.”

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