ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates pitched well against a talented Cardinals lineup for a second straight night to punch a series-clinching 5-4 win at Busch Stadium on Saturday.
But the path they took to get there was a rare one, and it speaks to the many opportunities the Pirates plan to give in the final two months of the 2021 season.
Dillon Peters, a newcomer to the Pirates with a decent amount of experience in the bullpen, gave his new team another solid start with one run allowed in five innings. The only issue in his outing was a two-out double from Paul Goldschmidt that plated the speedy Tommy Edman from third base.
Peters did what the Pirates hoped he’d do when they claimed him off waivers from the Angels: pound the strike zone. Of his 72 pitches on Saturday, 54 were strikes -- though that included 10 foul balls in a 12-pitch at-bat against Harrison Bader in the third inning.
“I was getting ahead early. When you get ahead, you’re going to get some bad swings and some foul pitches, which will jack that strike percentage up,” Peters said. “Really just staying in rhythm with [catcher Jacob] Stallings and talking about what we wanted to do with these guys going into the next innings helped a ton.”
On the flip side, Chad Kuhl, who has started all but two games in his five MLB seasons, made his season debut out of the bullpen. The right-hander allowed three consecutive hits -- one of which bobbled out of the glove of a diving Ben Gamel in left field -- but after a mound visit with pitching coach Oscar Marin and Stallings, he allowed a sac fly then struck out two batters to preserve the lead.
The Pirates are using Kuhl out of the bullpen first and foremost to make sure that he’s healthy after he spent 18 days on the COVID-19 related injured list. Kuhl threw during that period, including a bullpen session and two live batting practices toward the back end of the stay. With the COVID-19 IL, a pitcher doesn’t go on a rehab assignment to get built back up, so he has to do it with his club or else be demoted to the Minors.
So, instead, Kuhl made his first appearance as a reliever in a non-piggyback situation; last season, Kuhl made two relief appearances as he came back from Tommy John surgery, working in tandem with starter Steven Brault to cover the typical five or six innings.
Peters knows what the process Kuhl is going through is like. He’s gone from starting to relieving and back again, pitching seven of his 33 outings in the Majors out of the bullpen. It’s no cakewalk; in fact, Peters called it an “extremely hard” role to settle in to.
“As a starter you kind of have the luxury to work pitches in or set ‘em up as the game goes on. As a reliever, it’s tough,” Peters added. “He only gave up one run. It was pretty incredible what he accomplished. If I’m in the bullpen in that situation, I’m happy with how that transpired.”
Maybe this stint for Kuhl is about getting him up to speed. But according to statements from general manager Ben Cherington in an exclusive interview with the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, the Pirates are also looking to make an “informed decision” about Kuhl’s future with the bullpen performances as possibly a piece of that larger picture.
“It's just gonna be a learning experience for him in terms of what he needs to do to get ready and how he gets ready, and that's something we expected,” manager Derek Shelton said. “But the fact that he came in, executed pitches and did not speed up on him in his first time out of the bullpen was definitely a positive sign."
Nothing about the current situation means Kuhl will necessarily be pushed one way or another. But part of the reason a guy like Peters is getting an extended look in the rotation is because a spot has been opened up. In this case, it’s Kuhl, but time will tell how long that will be the case.
For now, the Pirates are happy first and foremost that both contributed to a win on Saturday.