DETROIT -- Eduardo Rodriguez entered Wednesday with one run allowed over 35 2/3 innings in his last five starts, and one run or less allowed in each of his last six starts, one behind Justin Verlander’s franchise mark. He had allowed one run all season at Comerica Park, covering 21 2/3 innings, and one run in 35 2/3 innings in games outside of domes. He was facing a Pirates offense that had scored more than three runs in a game once since April 30 and was batting .179 with a .536 OPS as a team for May.
All the numbers seemed to favor Rodriguez and the Tigers, including the age and trending stats of the opposing pitcher. And yet, as the Tigers soaked in Wednesday’s 8-0 loss to the Pirates and a 2-3 homestand, they were left with one of former manager Jim Leyland’s favorite sayings: Momentum is only as good as your next day’s pitcher.
As good as Rodriguez has been this season, he wasn’t as good Wednesday, and the Pirates plundered him for it. A better attack against 43-year-old Pirates starter Rich Hill might have given them a fighting chance, but the Tigers were still having to battle from behind.
“The command wasn’t there, and they took advantage of it,” Rodriguez said of his first loss since April 5. “It just was one of those days when the command was up on all my pitches today.”
The first two runs on the board were the toughest, more so for the player trying to catch the ball than the one trying to deliver it. Matt Vierling, playing center field with Riley Greene getting a day out of the starting lineup, covered 117 feet to track down Austin Hedges’ 399-foot drive to right-center field; his sprint speed of 28.8 feet per second was his second-fastest time in the field this season. However, he needed another foot; winds blowing left-to-right seemed to carry the ball a little further than Vierling anticipated as he curled his route towards straightaway center. He reached out at the last second, but the ball hit off the tip of his glove as he went tumbling onto the warning track and rolled into the fence.
“I was about eight steps in the other gap, and then he hit that ball into right-center,” Vierling said. “Felt like I was running forever trying to go get it. Unfortunately, it hit off my glove. Thought I gave everything I had to go get it, and just didn’t come up with the catch.”
While Statcast gave Hedges’ opposite-field drive a 62 percent hit probability, it also gave Vierling a 60 percent catch probability based on positioning, hang time and ground covered. On the route, Vierling said, “I think I cut it off a little short and I had to go back a little bit further.”
Greene gets good jumps, according to Statcast, but also rates below average on his routes, more so than Vierling.
If that was the extent of the damage off Rodriguez, it would’ve been a tough-luck loss. But his command was off, from the single that led off the inning to the nine-pitch walk to Rodolfo Castro that followed. Even Hedges’ double was a mistake pitch.
“The pitch was supposed to be thrown away, try to paint the corner to get a strike call,” Rodriguez said. “He put a good swing on it. I think that ball is out in some good ballparks.”
The struggles continued from there, despite a perfect third inning and a strikeout of Bryan Reynolds. Castro was much more aggressive on a cutter that wandered over the plate in the fourth inning, sending it deep to left for a solo homer. A third straight changeup to Reynolds was elevated enough for him to lash down the right-field line for a two-out double extending the fifth inning for an Andrew McCutchen RBI single.
“He just wasn’t sharp,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He didn’t have his fastball. He didn’t really locate. They came out and ambushed him pretty well and won some at-bats.”
Three of Pittsburgh’s six hits off Rodriguez went for extra bases, the most extra-base hits he has allowed in a game this season. The Pirates averaged just an 80.8 mph exit velocity, but their hard hits were timely.
“We had a good game plan against a really good pitcher who’s been pitching well across the league,” Hedges said.