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Bucs plan to give struggling Kang a rest

Third baseman has posted a .427 OPS this season; Taillon cleared to start Sunday
@adamdberry
April 13, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The Pirates are giving Jung Ho Kang a few days off to work his way out of an early season slump at the plate. Kang went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Friday's win over the Nationals, and he has not recorded a hit in his past 18 at-bats.

WASHINGTON -- The Pirates are giving Jung Ho Kang a few days off to work his way out of an early season slump at the plate.

Kang went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Friday's win over the Nationals, and he has not recorded a hit in his past 18 at-bats. He has notched just one hit in 27 at-bats since hitting his only homer of the season on April 3. Overall this year, Kang is batting .105 with a .427 OPS and a 38.1 percent strikeout rate.

Kang did not start in Saturday's 3-2 loss at Nationals Park, though he did enter in the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter, striking out against Sean Doolittle. Kang is not expected to be in the lineup against Max Scherzer on Sunday. The Pirates are off on Monday, then they will re-evaluate where Kang stands offensively on Tuesday in Detroit. For now, they’re hoping that a three-day break will work in his favor.

Kang created some excitement in Spring Training, where he led all Major League hitters with seven home runs. But the Pirates aren’t surprised that Kang still has some rust to shake off, considering he missed nearly two full seasons after a December 2016 DUI arrest in South Korea.

“The challenge at this level is when they find a hole, they can repeat pitches to that spot when they find something that’s working. I believe he’s going to get out of it,” manager Clint Hurdle said on Friday night. “It’s going to be a test of will. … He’s got the support of his teammates.

“We’re going to need Jung Ho. He’s just got to keep working at it, man. … This league here, when you do well, you don’t go up. And he was gone a long time. I don’t understand what that can mean. I just know that it’s got to be really hard.”

Kang said through interpreter Jeffrey Kim that he remains confident at the plate. His offensive struggles haven’t affected his defense, either, Hurdle noted. According to Statcast, 44.5 percent of the pitches Kang has seen this season have been breaking balls and another 7.3 percent have been offspeed pitches. Kang is chasing those pitches outside of the strike zone more often than he did in 2015-16, but he’s also making less contact in the strike zone.

“I just think they found something that’s working, and they’re staying with it. He was able to close up in the past any avenues that had success from time to time,” Hurdle said. “He was good at counter-punching. Right now, we’re stuck on the counter-punching.”

The Pirates named Kang their starting third baseman during Spring Training, but they believe Colin Moran can step in and do the job as well. Moran entered Saturday with three errors in the field, but he got off to a strong start at the plate by going 5-for-18 with four walks and two homers in his first 12 games.

“He stayed relentless in his approach and his pursuit of playing time and doing the best he can for the team. He’s done that,” Hurdle said. “We have a good tandem over there right now, and sometimes it takes two guys to pull off the job of one for a period of time.”

Jamo good to go
After being hit in the head by a comebacker on Monday at Wrigley Field, Jameson Taillon passed all the necessary tests and received clearance to pitch on Sunday at Nationals Park.

Taillon said he watched a slow-motion replay of the play on Saturday. The ball came off Anthony Rizzo’s bat at 102 mph and struck him directly in the head, but the right-hander said he experienced no soreness or headaches afterward. He was even able to joke about it, deadpanning that it unlocked another part of his brain and increased his IQ.

“Unlucky to get hit,” said Taillon, who also took a line drive to the head in 2016. “Lucky to be all right yet again.”

Taillon also considers himself fortunate to face Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. The Nationals bumped Scherzer’s start back to Sunday, making him the fourth fellow Opening Day starter that Taillon will line up against this season. The slider that helped Taillon take a step forward last season was inspired, in part, by Scherzer’s breaking ball.

“As a fan, I enjoy watching Scherzer pitch. The competitor inside you likes going up against the best,” Taillon said. “It’ll be fun to get in the box against him, get to compete against him. Hopefully, we can make it a good pitchers’ duel.”

Around the horn
• Moran’s three-run homer in the 10th inning on Friday night was the Pirates’ first pinch-hit, go-ahead home run in extra innings since Jose Guillen hit one on April 11, 1998.

• Closer Felipe Vázquez recorded his 62nd save with the Pirates on Friday, passing Stan Belinda (61) for eighth place on Pittsburgh’s all-time list. Matt Capps ranks seventh, with 67.

• Catcher Francisco Cervelli and right fielder Melky Cabrera returned to the lineup on Saturday afternoon after not starting on Friday night.

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