The Pirates opened a series on Friday at loanDepot park with the Marlins, a team that has been one of the best in baseball at developing young pitchers at the Major League level.
The traveling crew faced one of them in Elieser Hernandez. Meanwhile, the Pirates pitched Wil Crowe, a sophomore pitcher that the club is hoping to see gains from in the same way Miami has seen gains from its starting arms.
Pittsburgh won the first matchup of the series, 2-1, led by one of Crowe’s best starts of the season -- and the team got a little extra help from a veteran pitcher that it's developing in a new way.
Crowe went five innings with only one run allowed, and though he’s struggled with efficiency this season, he needed only 74 pitches and had one inning in which he faced more than four batters. He did this all while virtually saving his four-seamer and tunneling his changeup and slider off his sinker, a gameplan he developed with catcher Jacob Stallings and executed to near perfection.
Crowe’s exit was not performance-based, but due to the nature of the National League game. With a runner on third and No. 8 batter Hoy Park due up in the top of the sixth inning, Crowe stepped on deck. However, Marlins manager Don Mattingly called the Pirates’ bluff, intentionally walking Park and forcing Bucs manager Derek Shelton to pinch-hit Wilmer Difo, who flied out.
“We were trying to add on runs,” Shelton said. “If not, he's going back out for the sixth, because Wil threw the ball about as well as he's thrown it in the last month or so."
What the Marlins have been able to do with pitchers in Crowe’s development stage is top notch. Pablo López went from a 5.09 ERA in his first full season (2019) to a 3.03 ERA this season before an injury set him back. Sandy Alcantara was strong from the start with a 3.88 ERA in his first full season, and he's now developed one of the most filthy arsenals in MLB.
They’re currently trying to turn former Top 100 prospect Jesús Luzardo’s young career around, and his past four starts (3.74 ERA) have been a step in the consistent and right direction that they’ve been able to point their pitchers toward.
“I think in anything you’re doing throughout the game, you try to look at people who have done things well and see why they’ve done them well and as much of their process as you can understand,” Shelton said.
Another pitcher in the Pirates’ mix may have other teams looking at them, too.
Chris Stratton has pitched anywhere from the fourth to the ninth inning this season. He had pitched 30 times with the Pirates trailing and 24 times trying to preserve a Pittsburgh lead. A former starter, Stratton has made 17 multi-inning efforts, but now he’s gotten more and more single-inning outings -- and often in the tightest spots in games.
With the Pirates’ other closing option, David Bednar, on the injured list, Stratton was once again called in for the ninth in a save situation. He had recorded three saves and a win over his past four appearances, but he immediately gave up a leadoff triple to Bryan De La Cruz.
However, Stratton showed exactly why he’s relied on by Shelton in this role. In late and close situations, the 31-year-old has a 1.26 ERA in 14 1/3 innings after striking out the side to strand De La Cruz.
“We’re all huge Chris Stratton fans in the clubhouse,” said Cole Tucker, who hit the decisive go-ahead sac fly. “We believe in him. Whether he’s throwing the ninth or starting, we believe in him.”
Stratton’s sixth save of the season secured the Pirates’ seventh win in their past 10 games, and it has been keyed by their arms. The club has allowed four or fewer runs in six of those games, only one of which it's lost.
If the Pirates can develop their pitching at a high level, winning could be the trend sooner rather than later.
“I just think we’re trusting the process,” said Crowe of the team’s improvement. “We’re all learning at the big league level.
“[But] I don’t think anybody is worrying about their own statistics. They’re wanting to do what they need to do to help the next guy or to perform for the next guy, and we’re really coming together as one, as a unit. It’s fun to be a part of when we’re all clicking.”