CINCINNATI -- Tuesday’s game against the Reds was a tale of two escapes.
Keller continued a stretch of strong September starts, allowing only two runs in 5 2/3 innings. His first three innings were relatively stress-free, with Tucker Barnhart's run-scoring double play bailing him out of a first-and-third spot with no outs in the second inning.
But issues with contact and walks caught up to Keller in the fourth inning, when the Reds loaded the bases on two walks and a single from Kyle Farmer.
Back on May 10, the first time Keller faced the Reds in 2021, he found himself in a jam almost identical to this and didn’t know how to get out of it. After he navigated three innings with little damage, four straight Reds reached to begin the fourth. Keller induced a flyout, then allowed three more to reach. He began the inning with the score tied at 1; his line ended with seven runs on it.
“I think that’s some of the growth that we’ve seen out of Mitch, where that inning [in May] got out of control and he got out of the game,” manager Derek Shelton said. “[Today] he continued to execute pitches, he minimized the damage and he gave us a chance to win the game.”
This time, Keller induced a weak flyout from Barnhart, then TJ Friedl hit a ball a bit deeper for a sacrifice fly before a groundout ended the inning with only the one run allowed.
Perhaps that’s the biggest way Keller has grown: He’s been able to more effectively manage how he handles things at-bat to at-bat. His 1.75 WHIP has barely nudged down since he was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis in June, when it sat at 1.80, but his September ERA after four starts is 3.38.
“Once you’re put in a situation like that, it just comes down to minimizing the damage,” Keller said, “and I think [catcher Michael Perez] and I did a really good job of navigating through that. At that point, it’s just, make as many good pitches as you can and when they put it in play, hopefully we get two."
With the Pirates holding a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Mears entered with the bases empty; three batters later they were full, as he walked two batters and gave up a single to face the Reds’ potent 3-4-5 hitters.
Yet Shelton left Mears in the game with Nick Castellanos and Joey Votto due up. Why?
“We were going to need punchouts. We were going to need soft contact, and we were going to need punchouts,” Shelton said. “The way he came after [Max] Schrock, I thought, ‘All right, let’s go. Let’s see it.’”
"The first two batters I got behind [in the count], and obviously you don't want to be behind,” Mears said. “But [against] Castellanos with the bases loaded, my first thought was, 'I need to get ahead here to give myself a chance,' because I have so much respect for that guy at the plate.”
Armed with a fastball touching 97.7 mph -- tied for the second-fastest pitch of his career -- Mears got Castellanos to a quick 0-2 count and immediately induced a popup. Then he worked Votto to 0-2 before getting him to pop out.
Before you knew it, Mears had struck out Farmer looking, and the Pirates had all of the momentum.
“We’ve talked about guys that have pitched themselves into different situations by the opportunity, and Nick Mears, I think, is a perfect example of that,” Shelton said. “He’s pitched himself into high-leverage innings near the end of the year.”
Mears hasn’t always succeeded in these situations. On Sept. 14 against the Reds, he allowed two to reach. The Pirates stuck with him, and when all was said and done, he’d given up four runs.
But Tuesday's outing showed why Mears is getting entrusted with these situations more and more, and time will tell how he grows from the experience.
“This is what you work for,” Mears said. “As a kid, from Little League, you work for these leverage situations as a relief pitcher. So for them to have the confidence for me to get out of that situation means a lot to me.”