Pirates limp into the All-Star break

The All-Star break is coming, that hypothetical-but-not-really halfway point of the season that marks a time for evaluation, however arbitrary. The Pirates go into the break at 39-54, having lost four of five.

What’s gone right

The bullpen, for one thing, or at least the so-called back end thereof. All-Star David Bednar has been the ace of the bullpen all season long. He’s come down to Earth lately and now sits at 3-3 with 16 saves, four blown saves, four holds and a 2.89 ERA. He’d been coming into games earlier when the game was seemingly on the line, hence the four holds and the five multi-inning saves. After a blown save in Tampa Bay on June 25, however, there developed some concern over his back. Recently, he’s being used as a traditional closer, pitching only in the ninth inning.

Early in the season, Bednar and Chris Stratton handled the late-inning duties, while Wil Crowe and Dillon Peters emerged as reliable multi-inning, middle relief options. Lately, things have gone sideways for Stratton and Peters. Crowe is getting more late-inning opportunities, as are Chase De Jong (4-0, 2.12 ERA), Duane Underwood, Jr. (four holds and one blown save in eight appearances in July) and rookie Yerry De Los Santos (3.00 ERA and three saves). De Los Santos’s first save came on June 29 while Bednar was being rested. The second came the next day in relief of Bednar, who showed some rust after the long layoff and was removed when he was one out away from finishing.

Start me up

The young starting pitchers are beginning to come around. In four of five games last week, the Pirates’ starter has pitched into the seventh inning. Unfortunately, they’ve won only one of those games. Lately, the best starter has been Zach Thompson, who hasn’t yielded more than two runs in each of his last seven starts. However, he hasn’t made it to the sixth inning in five of those games, as manager Derek Shelton, as least until last week, has been reluctant to let a starter go through the order more than twice. Mitch Keller has begun to show why he’d been such a highly regarded prospect. In his last two starts, he’s pitched 13 innings and surrendered just two runs, one unearned. JT Brubaker has pitched at least six innings in four of his last five starts.

Roansy Contreras had a 2.76 ERA at the end of June. It now sits at 3.78, thanks to a disastrous July 1 start against the Milwaukee Brewers during which he gave up seven runs and couldn’t finish the second inning. He’s been sent down to triple-A on paper but remains with the big club. The Pirates just want to shut him down for a few days to rest his arm. They obviously have high hopes for him and see him as a valuable asset. Veteran Jose Quintana, a likely trade candidate, has provided the veteran leadership and good pitching the Pirates were looking for.

What’s gone wrong

The offense. The Pirates rank at or near the bottom in almost every important offensive category, and even in some unimportant ones. They regularly send out a starting lineup with seven or eight batters hitting below .250. Their only .300 hitter is Liover Peguero, who is now in double-A but was 1-for-3 in his only major-league game. Jack Suwinski, second on the team and first among National League rookies with 14 home runs, was recently sent to triple-A after an 0-for-29 slump that sees him at .198/.288/.428. Bryan Reynolds, the team’s best player, was hitting .212/.302/.388 at the end of May.

He got hot and is now on the IL after raising his numbers to .261/.343/.465, 15 HR, 32 RBIs. Even highly touted rookie Oneil Cruz, recently called up and impressing with his power, speed and strong arm, is only at .204/.240/.398, albeit with 4 HR, 17 RBIs in 26 games.

I’ll stop short of calling the Pirates’ $4 million first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo a disappointment. It’s clear he was playing with an injury all season long before finally going on the IL on May 25. But since coming back on July 5, he’s only 6-for-34. At present, he’s at .182/.271/.252, 2 HR, 15 RBIs. One of the homers was hit off St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Meanwhile, Shelton’s lineup decisions are often puzzling. Veterans Josh VanMeter and Ben Gamel, hitting .187 and .249, respectively, have taken valuable playing time away from younger players since returning from the IL. Their hustle and team-first attitudes are admirable. VanMeter has even pitched and taken a turn behind the plate as an emergency catcher. Gamel makes exciting diving catches in the outfield. But VanMeter is a career utility man and Gamel is more of a fourth outfielder than a regular.

Triple the fun

The Pirates had their share of noteworthy events in the first half. They finished June with 44 homers for the month, more than they’d hit in April and May combined. Three Pirates had three-homer games from June 19-30, a major-league record for one month.

It started on Father’s Day with a 4-3 victory at home against the San Francisco Giants. Suwinski had already hit two solo shots to give his team a 3-2 lead after eight innings. It appeared safe with Bednar ready to pitch the ninth. Bednar uncharacteristically gave up a tying homer to Thairo Estrada leading off the inning, setting the stage for Suwinski’s heroics. Suwinski led off the bottom of the ninth with a no-doubter off Tyler Rogers to win the game.

On June 29 at Nationals Park, Reynolds contributed a three-homer day of his own to propel the Pirates to an 8-7 win over the Washington Nationals. Reynolds’s big day, however, was overshadowed by the now-infamous play where the Pirates scored a run because the Nationals failed to record the fourth out in the fifth inning. The next night at home against the Brewers, catcher Michael Perez, who was batting a meager .129/.178/.235 going into the game, became the third Pirate to hit three homers in a game in June, all three to deep right field, en route to an 8-7 victory.

The elusive fourth out

In case you missed it, let’s backtrack to that mysterious fourth out. Umpire Mark Wegner, the crew chief, carefully explained the play to the media after the game, saying, “This is the first time I’ve been on the field for something like this.”

In that inning, Suwinski led off with an infield single. One out later, a Hoy Park ground-rule double sent him to third base. Ke’Bryan Hayes followed with a soft line drive to first baseman Josh Bell. At the crack of the bat, both Suwinski and Park left their bases too soon. Bell caught the ball to retire Hayes and fired it across the diamond to third baseman Ehire Andrianza, who tagged Park for the third out. Suwinski crossed the plate before Park was tagged. The entire Nationals team jogged off the field without anybody thinking to make an appeal play at third. A successful appeal would have nullified Suwinski’s run and resulted in a rare fourth out. However, once the entire defensive team crossed the foul line, they lost the right to appeal and the run counted.

What’s left

So far in 2022, the Pirates lost games by scores of 21-0, 18-4, 19-2 and 16-0. As a result, position players have taken the mound five times (three times by VanMeter, twice by Diego Castillo). The 19-2 loss at home against the Brewers could not have been more ill-timed. That was Fireworks Night at the ballpark and the annual Pirates Charities Pledge Night on TV. Fans waiting for fireworks had to suffer through a three-hour, 34-minute debacle that was essentially over in the second inning. No doubt most of the TV viewers, with no compelling reason to watch through the end, turned it off early. So much for charity.

More recently, it was announced PNC Park will be getting a new scoreboard in time for the 2023 season. It will be 142 feet wide as opposed to the present 82-foot-wide scoreboard. In their infinite wisdom, the Pirates and their landlord, the Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA), have decided it will be paid for by a $1 surcharge on all tickets sold. That’s $1 for the privilege of getting to watch what will surely be an extra 60 feet of advertisements. Of course, the idea is an absolute public relations disaster. Fan reaction can best be described as outraged. What if more is collected than the cost of the scoreboard? Not to worry, it’s going to the SEA’s capital reserve fund. Yippee.

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