Bucs' bullpen shines through the rain to help take series

April 25th, 2022

CHICAGO -- JT Brubaker was never going to be long for his start. He was so sick on Saturday that he wasn’t even at the ballpark. Manager Derek Shelton wasn’t sure Brubaker was going to pitch. But Shelton was sure of this: regardless of how many outs Brubaker could provide, the bullpen would take it from there.

On a mostly overcast Sunday afternoon, one delayed by rain, Pittsburgh’s bullpen shined. Across six combined innings, Dillon Peters, Wil Crowe, Heath Hembree, Chris Stratton and David Bednar allowed just one run, nailing down the Pirates’ 4-3 win at Wrigley Field to take the series. The core of the bullpen has shoved, and the energy is sensational.  

“It’s a good group down there,” Hembree said. “It’s like our own little family right down there in the bullpen. We’re just having fun and going day by day right now.”

The relief corps have plenty of reasons to enjoy themselves. As a collective, the Pirates have a 3.75 ERA. That’s middle-of-the-road, yes, but the Pirates' true effectiveness lies a bit deeper.

Diego Castillo, a position player tasked with mop-up duty, allowed four runs on Saturday. Miguel Yajure is a major outlier as well, surrendering about half the runs given up by actual pitchers. Exclude those two and the Pirates' bullpen has a 1.79 ERA across 65 1/3 innings. That would be second in baseball. 

Yes, there are some hoops to go through to get to that number. But that number -- 1.79 -- provides a more nuanced understanding of how well this bullpen has performed. 

“It’s awesome,” Brubaker said. “They’re throwing their game, they’re throwing to their strengths and they’re going right after these hitters. It’s really fun to watch.”

Crowe and Peters, the Pirates' starters-turned-multi-inning-relievers, continue to be nothing short of phenomenal. Neither have allowed a run in 23 1/3 combined innings. They have 24 strikeouts to eight walks.

Peters, after not allowing a hit to the first 25 batters he faced, the longest-stretch in franchise history since at least 1974, finally surrendered his first knock on Sunday, a broken-bat, opposite-field bloop to left field from Jonathan Villar.

“It’s been really awesome to see them come into that role and hit the ground running with it,” Bednar said. “It definitely is an adjustment going from starting to the bullpen, and to see them formulate a routine and have a good attitude about it and go out there and attack guys, it’s been a lot of fun.” 

This may not have been the day to celebrate the bullpen had it not been for the intelligence of Jake Marisnick. With one out in the ninth inning, Rafael Ortega smoked a line drive off the bricks. Instead of aggressively pursuing a ball he couldn’t catch, Marisnick approached the wall with caution, then adjusted course once the ball caromed off the wall.

The play, while subtle, kept Ortega at second. Given that Ortega ended the game stranded on third base after Seiya Suzuki’s bloop double, Marisnick’s smarts were the difference between a win and a potential tie.

“I give him a ton of credit because he does not feel well,” Shelton said. “He grinded through it today, knowing that we were going to [start Bryan Reynolds at] DH. It was a hell of a play.”

Added Bednar: “Saved the game, for sure.”

Marisnick won’t have a save in the box score, but Bednar will after stranding runners at second and third with one out. Bednar used his heat to put the game on ice, striking out Wilson Contreras and then Frank Schwindel with the bases loaded after an intentional pass to Ian Happ with nothing but fastballs.

“It’s impressive,” Shelton said. “Guys know he’s got it, and he went right after it and executed.”

The same could be said about the Pirates' bullpen as a whole. The collective efforts of Bednar, Crowe and company have arguably been the most impressive part of the season thus far. Good teams, generally, have good bullpens. Pittsburgh has the latter. Maybe, this season, it will help them work to become the former.

“Nobody’s selfish. Everybody embraces the role that they’re in and takes the ball when the time is called," Hembree said. "There’s no complaining. There’s no divas. There’s nothing like that going on. Everybody’s prepared, being their own selves, and then when the phone rings and it’s your name on the phone, everybody’s ready to go.”