Pirates’ Toronto connection paying dividends

It was a raucous playoff atmosphere in the venerable old ballpark, although only one of the combatants was in contention for a playoff berth. The visitors entered the diamond in the bottom of the eighth inning with what seemed an insurmountable 5-1 lead, their eighth-inning specialist on the mound and a host of defensive replacements in the field.

The home team roared back with three runs and had momentum on their side going into the ninth inning. In the top of the inning, the visitors had two men on and one out. The manager had a decision to make. Does he allow his good-field, no-hit shortstop, who had just entered the game for defensive purposes, to hit? Does he go to the bench for a pinch hitter? The manager rolled the dice and called on a young reserve lefty-hitting outfielder to bat for the shortstop. The young pinch hitter blasted a long home run deep into the right field stands, seizing the momentum back for the visitors, who went on to win, 8-6, on Thursday.

A flair for the dramatic

It was the kind of dramatic hit Joshua Palacios has delivered time and again for the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates. The left-handed hitting Palacios, 28, thrives on important late-inning situations. With that homer, he picked up a dejected teammate in pitcher Colin Holderman, who gave up the three runs in the eighth, made manager Derek Shelton look like a genius and denied the Chicago Cubs a much-needed victory.

Like any major-league team looking to improve — basically, all of them — the Pirates watch the waiver wire. They seem especially keen on cast-offs from the Toronto Blue Jays, where general manager Ben Cherington was vice president of baseball operations from 2016-2019 and Shelton was the quality control coach, whatever that is, in 2017.

The hitter

Palacios was drafted during Cherington’s tenure with the Jays, who finally called him up for 13 games in 2021. However, Palacios was put on waivers and claimed by the Washington Nationals, for whom he played 29 games in 2022. The Pirates claimed him off waivers last December. It seemed like a move that would have little consequence and didn’t solve any pressing need. After all, the Pirates already had a pair of left-handed-hitting outfield prospects in triple-A in Canaan Smith-Njigba, who made the Pirates’ opening day roster, and Calvin Mitchell.

Yet, whereas Smith-Njigba and Mitchell did little with their opportunities with the Pirates, Palacios shined in his. His numbers heading into Saturday’s action — .234/.273/.420, 10 HR, 39 RBIs and a minus .247 WPA — are hardly believable in light of the many dramatic moments he’s engineered this season.

There was his seventh-inning homer in St. Louis on June 2 to add an important run in a 7-5 win. There was the 10th-inning game-winning homer against the Phillies on July 30. As if Palacios hadn’t broken Cardinals fans’ hearts enough, there was his ninth-inning two-run shot to give the Pirates a 7-6 win in Busch Stadium on September 2. Moreover, he is 8-for-22 with two homers as a pinch hitter in 2023.

Is six a crowd?

The Pirates’ outfield is crowded with Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski and Connor Joe. With Henry Davis being groomed there and Andrew McCutchen sure to return, Palacios could be squeezed out in a numbers game in 2024. Nevertheless, the Pirates have to find a way to keep him on the team.

The pitcher

Your favorite team plucks a 29-year-old triple-A left-handed reliever with a 12.00 ERA and 2.111 WHIP from the waiver wire. How do you react? Probably you react with a shrug and a yawn. You see it as another innocuous waiver claim.

But if your favorite team is the Pirates and the pitcher is Ryan Borucki, you’d be wrong. Borucki pitched for the Blue Jays from 2018 until June 5, 2022, when Toronto traded him and his 9.95 ERA to Seattle. The Cubs signed him as a free agent for 2023. He made the team out of spring training but was sent to the minors before pitching in a game.

But Cherington and Shelton knew him and saw something the other teams missed. As of this writing, in 37-1/3 innings, Borucki has a 2.65 ERA, .804 WHIP and 31 strikeouts against four walks. He began his Pirates career giving up two runs in 2/3 innings in his first two appearances. Since then his ERA is 1.96. He tossed 8-1/3 scoreless innings for triple-A Indianapolis before the Pirates recalled him. As Pirates property, his ERA is 2.17, combining the majors and minors. Yes, one can jimmy numbers around to make a player’s statistics look good or bad. But any way you cook Borucki’s stats, he’s been good for the Pirates.

The turnaround

So how did Borucki turn his major-league career around in Pittsburgh? Increased slider usage is how. He’s thrown it 69 percent of the time. As a result, right-handed batters are batting a mere .229/.239/.400 against him. He’d never thrown the slider more than 39 percent of the time in any previous major-league season. With more and more stellar outings, Shelton has given Borucki increased responsibilities — and I’m not talking about the fact that he’s the commissioner of the Pirates’ fantasy football league. Shelton has used Borucki in late inning situations more frequently and has been rewarded for his faith. It was Borucki, for example, who pitched out of Holderman’s eighth-inning jam on Thursday, paving the way for Palacios’s heroics. (By the way, Borucki’s fantasy philosophy is pretty interesting. He doesn’t carry a kicker.)

The good teammate

All indications are Borucki is the proverbial “good teammate,” too. On August 13, when umpire Nic Lentz ejected bench coach Don Kelly for arguing balls and strikes, Borucki, who had been removed from the game, could be seen with his hand raised, trying to take the rap for Kelly, yelling to Lentz, “I said it!” In 2021 with the Jays, Borucki plunked the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier with a pitch for stealing a game-plan card that had been dropped by Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk. For that he received a two-game suspension. One can bet this kind of stuff plays well in a major-league clubhouse.

With the rule change compelling a relief pitcher to face at least three batters (unless he ends an inning or gets injured), the days of the left-on-left specialist are gone. Borucki’s place on the 2024 Pirates seems assured, given his effectiveness against both lefties and righties.

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