Victorious Pirates keep faith in their talent

With core of 2020 team in Pittsburgh, focus is on forming winning habits

August 3rd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates’ decision to retain All-Star closer beyond Wednesday’s Trade Deadline was, first and foremost, a statement about the trade market. Pittsburgh’s front office would have only dealt Vazquez for a haul of can’t-miss young talent, and the right offer never came their way.

But keeping Vazquez was also, in a way, a vote of confidence in the Pirates’ core. Even if this season is spiraling downward, the Bucs believe they can be a postseason contender as soon as next season. So nights like Friday, when the Pirates rode two big innings to an 8-4 win over the Mets at PNC Park, still matter no matter how far they’ve fallen out of the postseason race.

“We’re always going to focus on winning now, because you don’t just come out here to play. You come out here to win games,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said on Friday afternoon. “Sometimes it’s harder than other [times]. However, it also bodes well for the future. … You think your club’s going to be in a better place next year at the start of the year than it is right now.”

The Pirates hold that belief even though the roster that has struggled to only four wins in 20 games since the All-Star break is largely the group that will return next season, albeit ideally with better health, plus a few prospects currently playing for Triple-A Indianapolis. A strong finish to this season won’t guarantee anything come Opening Day 2020, but it could reinforce the front office’s faith in this team.

“I say this all the time: We firmly believe we’re a good ballclub. It’s going to be a lot of us here next year,” starter and winner (4-4) said. “It’s going to be a lot of the same guys for the next few years. We’re going to finish strong and hope to play spoiler at the end. But we’re going to take it one game at a time, and it was a great start for us [on] this homestand to come out with a win.”

So it matters when Williams bounces back from a shaky first inning and puts together a quality start, like he did against a Mets team that had won seven straight entering Friday night. Williams gave up two runs in the first and another in the third, but he wound up retiring the final 10 batters he faced.

“It’s true Trevor. He grinded through the first three, found a rhythm then got through the next three innings,” said bench coach Tom Prince, who stepped in as acting manager with Hurdle suspended. “He didn’t get ruffled or anything like that. He moved forward, just like he always does.”

It matters when and , who have emerged this year as everyday players and potentially key contributors, combine to go 3-for-7 with three walks and three runs from atop the order.

It matters when Jose Osuna, who is due to receive more playing time with Corey Dickerson traded and Jung Ho Kang designated for assignment, goes 2-for-3 with an RBI single while making a handful of nice plays at third base.

And it matters when , a foundational piece of the Pirates’ core, rips a three-run homer to left to give the Bucs a four-run cushion in the seventh. Marte has been immune to the club’s overall struggles since the All-Star break, batting .309 with a 1.007 OPS and seven home runs in the second half.

“He’s the same every day this year,” Prince said of Marte. “It’s been really fun to watch him.”

The Pirates would like to see break out of his slump and prove he can anchor their lineup like he did the first three months of the season. Fittingly, Bell kick-started their five-run fourth against Mets lefty Steven Matz with an RBI single to left field. Osuna (RBI single) and (two-run double) kept the inning going, and catcher tacked on another run with a bloop single to center.

To make any noise next year, Pittsburgh needs to pitch better and protect leads more often than it has this season. So it was promising to see Mitch Keller -- the Pirates’ No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, who will be back soon enough -- strike out 12 with one walk in Triple-A on Friday night. And it was encouraging for the club to see setup man , who hit a brief skid early last month, strike out two in a scoreless eighth inning.

And it was a blast for everyone else in the dugout to see Vazquez do his thing in the ninth, hitting 100 mph with his second pitch of the night and 101 mph with his third. Vazquez, making only his sixth appearance since the All-Star break, finished the game by striking out Pete Alonso with a 99-mph fastball.

“This is a high-end reliever at the end of the game who makes a difference when you get there,” Hurdle said before the game. “We’ve got to find ways to get there more often. He’s one of the best in the game.”