Given Away: Angels 5, Pirates 4

06.06.16 Posted by

I said in yesterday’s preview that this is the kind of game the Bucs should win: a below-average team up against their best starter. For most of the game, it played out as expected: Cole held the Angels in check, and the Pirates wore Santiago down, scoring on a bases loaded walk (from Polanco) and then a bases loaded HBP (from Kang, who amusingly fist-bumped someone afterwards. Way to take one for the team!).

The Bucs carried a 4-1 lead into the 7th, when Cole ran out of gas around 100 pitches and gave up an infield single and consecutive doubles. Feliz came in to preserve the lead, but Watson took over in the 8th and gave up a single and a home run (to Pujols). 5-4 Angels, and that was that. The Bucs threatened in the ninth with runners on second and third and one out, but couldn’t get the tying run across: Marte was intentionally walked and Sean Rodriguez grounded into a game-ending double play on the first pitch. As has often been the case lately, it seemed like this lineup was one hit (or one more inning) away from breaking the game open.

The Bucs have lost three consecutive series’ and seven of nine overall, and things are about to get a lot harder.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

…And One Step Back: Pirates 8, Angels 7

06.05.16 Posted by

It was nice to see the Pirates get the offense going yesterday after four straight lackluster efforts at the plate. Unfortunately, this happened at the same time their pitching got back to where it was earlier, too: highly unreliable. Better than neither of them working, and a win’s a win, but it would’ve been nice to keep some of those pitching gains at the same time the offense started hitting again.

Locke was actually good again, giving up just three runs in seven innings (and apart from putting up good results, his propensity for getting past the 5th or even the 6th inning is almost as encouraging in and of itself). Tony Watson, however, gave up four earned runs while only recording one out, turning an 8-3 romp after the Bucs put up five runs in the 7th into an 8-7 nailbiter almost immediately. Two of the runs that scored were runners inherited by Feliz, though one of those game on a ground out.

Kang, Polanco, and Joyce all homered. Polanco’s homer was an absolute bomb, and Joyce’s was a pinch hit homer. There’s been talk that Joyce’s ridiculous performance is down to a completely revamped swing, though it’s hard to say if that’s the direct cause, or just the most convenient retrofitted explanation for what might still be pretty random. My thinking is that at least part of this is real, though. If it is, it’s not clear how the Bucs can find too many more at bats for him: all three outfielders are All-Star caliber (and much better with the glove and on the base paths), and even if you stick him at first, Jaso’s having a great year and is a lefty just like Joyce. So all they can really do is continue to spell guys on a regular basis and pinch hit with him often. Joyce is on pace for 200 ABs and he’s slugging almost .700 (he’d be #1 in the league if you dropped the plate appearance minimum a bit, with Kang at #2, by the way). If he keeps doing this long enough, something’ll have to give, even if the Bucs just end up using him as trade bait. But my guess is this player rotation thing is a big part of the team’s analytics, which means they’re most likely to just keep finding room where they can, even if you’d ideally give him a chance to play regularly at this point.

Yesterday’s win snaps a four game losing streak and, with Cole on the mound this afternoon, gives them a good chance to take the series before the gauntlet the schedule is about to throw down.

Filed under: game recaps, Jeff Locke

Big Test, Big Fail: Angels 9, Pirates 2

06.04.16 Posted by

I said yesterday that this was a “big test” for Liriano, not because the Angels are particularly formidable, but specifically because they’re not: even if he’s not quite his former self, you’d expect him to keep a lineup like this in check. Instead, he let them run free: the first five batters of the game walked or singled, Liriano gave up three runs before recording an out, and allowed runs in all four innings he was allowed to start, letting up seven in all.

The Pirates offense, meanwhile, didn’t do nearly enough against Jered Weaver. After a weird first inning that most Pirate fans on Twitter attributed to Weaver’s atypically low velocity, Marte and Kang both homered to lead off the 2nd…and that was it. The Pirates put runners on most innings, and had them in scoring position several times, but didn’t punch any more through. And the deficit Liriano put them in means it wouldn’t have mattered much if they did, though it’s still a little disconcerting not to get to Weaver after nearly being no-hit in the two previous games against less-than-stellar opposing starters.

The Bucs built up enough of a margin before this stretch that they’re still 29-25 and still in the thick of things, but they’ve given a lot of that progress back in a very short period of time: they’ve lost four in a row and six of seven. And while that’s concerning, far more worrisome is that Liriano seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps

Bucs Get Beat, Banged Up: Marlins 4, Pirates 3

06.03.16 Posted by

The Bucs lost in 12 innings last night, and that’s bad. But worse is that four Pirates left the game with injuries: Cutch, Cervelli, Mercer, and Freese. At first glance it sounds like these are all injuries of the day-to-day variety, but when you have that many of them it puts you in a pretty tough spot. This is a team going into a very tough stretch of baseball after this Angels series, and it figures to be relentlessly challenged even at full strength.

One bit of good news is that Gregory Polanco, though he did not start for the second consecutive game, was healthy enough to pinch hit. Seems like a good chance he starts today against The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California or whatever they’re called now. Seriously, Los Angeles Angels? “The City of Angels Angels”? But I digress: Polanco should be back tonight, especially with the team probably looking to rest a couple of the guys who had to leave last night.

As for this particular game, the Bucs managed to get no-hit for a good portion of the proceedings for the second consecutive night, and this time it wasn’t against someone with the kind of stuff that usually lends itself to no-hitters, Wei-Yin Chen. They busted through in the 7th when Matt Joyce, for the second night in a row, made a game of it with a timely hit, and they tied it in the 9th with a John Jaso RBI single. A.J. Schugel was solid in relief, going two scoreless innings in extras before surrendering a run in the 12th.

Juan Nicasio was fine: three runs in six innings. If you’d told me that before, I’d have thought we’d won, but Chen stymied us. I would not have expected that, and as good as this offense is, I’m just a tiny bit worried at how it’s made these Marlins pitchers look the last few games. The Fernandez game was easy to brush off for obvious reasons. Conley less so, but he took a no-hitter deep into the game earlier this year, too. Chen, on the other hand, is the kind of guy you’re basically allotted a couple of runs against. I expect the Bucs will get right back on the proverbial horse, but their inability to break through in any of these last few games (particularly after the 10-0 drubbing in the series opener) is disconcerting.

Filed under: game recaps, Juan Nicasio

New Day, Same Loss: Marlins 3, Pirates 2

06.02.16 Posted by

For the second consecutive day, the Pirates struggled mightily against the Marlin starter, their own starter matched them (but was shakier most of the way) most innings, but eventually relented in a multi-run inning. And in both games the Pirates put guys on base and had bad-to-moderate success at driving them in.

The one exception re: base runners was Matt Joyce’s two-run single to tie the game in the seventh. At that point, I was pretty confident the Pirates were going to win the game, largely because the tail end of our bullpen (if not the middle of it) is probably still better than theirs. But that ended up being the weak point: Tony Watson gave up a run, which is not a very Tony Watson thing to do.

It’s not terrible that the Bucs didn’t score off of Adam Conley, but it’s pretty bad that they didn’t manage a hit off of him until the 6th. Conley has that kind of stuff, but it’s still a disappointing start for an offense like this against almost anyone, and in this case the difference between being shut down by Conley and scratching out a run against him in the first half of the game was enough to swing the outcome.

Niese was solid, giving up two runs in five innings, striking out six. He’s been awfully steady lately, and the start he put together tonight is good enough for this offense to carry the day on most games. It just wasn’t this time.

The Bucs have lost two in a row, albeit the two games in the series they were most likely to lose. The Cubs won, so the Bucs are 7.5 games back again.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Outdueled: Marlins 3, Pirates 1

06.01.16 Posted by

For six innings, this was a real pitcher’s duel: neither team had scored, and at one point both Cole and Fernandez set down the entire order consecutively. Fernandez went on to stretch that to 12, though, and Cole went on to give up three runs in the 7th.

Actually following the game, Fernandez was significantly better: Cole found himself in several huge jams (2nd and 3rd with no outs, bases loaded with one out) in which he didn’t allow a run. And the Pirates had a great chance in the 9th when they loaded the bases with nobody out and Polanco/Kang/Marte coming up. Polanco hit a sac fly (a deep one to center that, if angled a little more to right, would’ve been his second grand slam in as many days), Kang struck out after getting called strikes on two borderline inside pitches, and Marte flied out to end the game. But the Bucs very nearly stole this one.

Otherwise, not too much to be concerned about: they were mostly shut down by a great pitcher, but made noise against the bullpen and fell a hit short of capitalizing. The only thing remotely worrying is how often Gerrit Cole finds himself dancing through the raindrops. In his last 18.1 innings he’s given up 26 hits, six walks, and struck out just nine, even though the actual run totals have ranged from great (one in the previous two starts) to okay (three last night).

The Bucs are 29-22 and have split the first two games against Miami, but they just fired their best shot and still just barely won, so the potential for a very strong series is still there.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Locke Shuts Miami Out: Pirates 10, Marlins 0

05.31.16 Posted by

Welcome to the bullpen, Juan Nicasio.

Jeff Locke threw a shutout last night. And not only was it the first shutout of his career, it was the first complete game, too. He struck out only one, but allowed just three hits and walked none. Needless to say, the Game Score of 82 was a personal best. He was only a few pitches shy of a Maddux.

Of Locke’s last seven starts, three have been very good or excellent, two have been decent, and only a couple have been at all disappointing. And of those two, one was against the Cubs, and in the other he allowed a ho-hum four runs in six innings. I said this in yesterday’s preview:

I was pretty surprised when I glanced at Jeff Locke’s stats while writing this and saw that he has a 5.08 ERA. Obviously, he was getting shelled early on, but over the last month he’s been much better. One thing I’ve learned writing these previews, though, is that “good” starts do a lot less to improve a starter’s overall numbers than really good ones. It’s those seven scoreless innings that really drag that number down: 6 innings and three runs looks great in isolation, but it’s a 4.50 ERA.

Case in point: last night’s game dragged his ERA down to 4.33.

The Pirate offense gave Locke more than enough to work with, scoring 10 runs on 14 hits. As those two numbers probably suggest, they got their share of extra base knocks: five in total, including home runs from Gregory Polanco and Sean Rodriguez. Let’s talk about both for a moment: if you told me Gregory Polanco was going to hit his first career grand slam, and that I somehow wasn’t going to use an image of his swing’s follow-through for the recap to this game, I probably would’ve sarcastically replied “what, is Locke going to throw a shutout or something?” So I’m as surprised as you are to have anyone else at the start of this post.

As for Rodriguez: what on earth is going on? Rodriguez is slugging .597. He has six home runs in 77 ABs. I know we’re playing with house money here, but I thought that three homers ago. His BABIP’s a little high, and his K rate is up…but his walk rate is at a career high. Last year, it was at a career low, which means it’s over six times as high this season as it was last season. Obviously, you can only run from the regression monster for so long, but it’s reasonable to entertain the idea that, even if he’s much worse going forward, he might not be a massive offensive liability. One can hope.

One other hitter that needs to be singled out is Freese, who went 4 for 5 last night. The big picture story this year has been the offense, but zooming in on it, the story within that story is that the Pirates are rotating two or three bench guys into the lineup on a regular basis, and seemingly paying no production penalty whatsoever for doing it. We talked a little last year about the Pirates’ conditioning research, and I’m hoping to write a bit more about this, but this might be an example of it paying dividends.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke, Sean Rodriguez

Start Worrying: Rangers 6, Pirates 2

05.30.16 Posted by

“Start worrying” refers not to the team as a whole, but to yesterday’s starter: I suspect I’m going to see more than a few blog entries across the tubewebs ringing the alarm on Francisco Liriano after this start. He’s had 10 starts, and his ERA is nearly a run and a half higher than it’s been in any of his years as a Pirate, and his xFIP is only slightly lower. He’s not being killed by an inflated BABIP or a low strand rate: he’s being killed by a big jump in walks (entirely within his control) and a doubling of his HR/FB% (maybe probably mostly not within his control).

August Fagerstrom makes a pretty compelling case over at FanGraphs that Liriano’s struggles are due in part to the league as a whole swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone. Pirates fans know well that Liriano’s entire deal revolves around getting people to chase that nasty slider of his, so if they’re not doing that, the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly.

He started fine yesterday: three scoreless innings, just two hits. He gave up two homers in the 4th, however, including a three-run shot to Mitch Moreland (both base runners had walked). He gave up six hits and struck out six, so it was really about those four walks, and the timing of that home run. I’m still not panicked, but at this point it looks very plausible that this is a real problem, and not something that will just regress away.

It’s not really clear if the walks are leading to situations where he’s forced to throw pitches hitters can square up, so maybe the increased walk rate is partially responsible for the HR/FB%. In other words, there might only be one problem here. But it’s a big one, and it’s one that’s dogged Liriano his entire career. The game of pitcher whack-a-mole continues: Locke and Niese seem to get everything together, and Nicasio and Liriano promptly take their place as punching bags.

Still, six runs is hardly insurmountable, so you have to partially blame the Pirate lineup for managing only two runs off of Martin Perez. Particularly damning is that they drew only one walk off of a guy who’d allowed multiple BBs in every other start this season and is walking 4.21 batters per nine for the season. The Bucs did have their changes, though, but for the second straight game they failed to cash them in.

The Rangers bullpen came into this series with the worst ERA in the American League, and yet the Bucs scored just one run in seven innings against them over the last two games.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps

Whirling Darvish: Rangers 5, Pirates 2

05.29.16 Posted by

The first half of this game didn’t actually go that badly: Nicasio allowing three runs in the first inning is pretty bad, and Darvish handled the Bucs’ lineup easily (three hits, one run, seven Ks), but I think most versions of this game—even the ones where the Pirates win—involve them falling behind in the first half. They got one off of Darvish and got four cracks at the bullpen, which has been terrible this year. If you’d told me that, and told me the Rangers would top out at five runs, I would’ve liked our chances.

The Bucs had lots of chances to make a game of it after Darvish was out: two men in scoring position for Marte in the 6th, the first two batters singling in the 8th (with Polanco up, no less), and a Joyce triple in the 9th, but only that last one resulted in another run.

Darvish looked great, hitting 98 MPH. No big shame in this one. They knew they’d probably have to score a few times off of the Ranger bullpen, they threatened big innings twice, and just didn’t quite get that last hit.

Nicasio, meanwhile, probably wasn’t as bad as his line suggests (four runs in 4.2 innings), but it seems awfully likely at this point that Jameson Taillon will be filling into a Nicasio-shaped outline in that rotation, and I’m actually pretty excited to see what this guy can do in the bullpen.

Filed under: game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Bucs Get to Hamels: Pirates 9, Rangers 1

05.28.16 Posted by

Maybe I should be surprised that the Pirates scored five runs off of Cole Hamels, but I’m not.

This looked like a weirdly low-scoring affair for the first half of the game, with the Pirates up 1-0 (a Starling Marte homer) through four. Then, the Pirates exploded for five in the fifth, all with no outs: a walk, a throwing error, two singles, and then a three-run opposite field homer for Kang. McCutchen added a solo shot an inning later, and Polanco hit a two-run homer in the 9th.

The talk early this year was about how many runs the Pirates were scoring without the help of the long ball. Turns out, that’s not really a thing: they’re 9th in the NL in homers now, which is just below league average.

More exciting, however, is Jon Niese putting together his third strong outing in a row, and his second against a solid lineup: Colorado was 4th in the NL in runs scored, and Texas was 3rd in the AL. He only struck out two, but he also walked just one, and he got 10 ground ball outs. He gave up a long solo homer to Adrian Beltre (he’s had a knack for giving up bombs this year, for whatever reason), but that was it. Obviously, the offense is what drives this team, but it’s winning games at the rate it is because that offense has been paired with decent-to-good starts from Niese and Locke.

The Bucs have won 10 of 12 and are at almost exactly the same win pace as last year.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Jonathan Niese, Jung Ho Kang