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Bucco Blasts: Mitch Keller Dominates, Competition at Shortstop

With a 2-11 record over their last 13 games, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally relinquished first place in the National League Central. This past week continued the Pirates’ free fall from early season grace. However, the lone bright spot of the week is pitcher Mitch Keller’s performance. I’ll cover that more in-depth shortly.

The Pirates took on the Rockies and the Orioles this week. They went 2-4 and watched their hitting issues rear their ugly head. However, they broke through for four runs on Sunday afternoon, their highest output over the last two weeks. They’ll take any good news they can get at this current rate.

Sitting at 22-19 on the season, the Pirates have been a tale of two teams thus far. They’re now 1.5 games behind the Brewers for first place in the National League Central. It’s early May, but the Pirates are still in a playoff position.

Let’s look back at The Week of Mitch Keller and analyze other things about the Pirates’ current state in this week’s edition of “Bucco Blasts.”

The Week of Mitch Keller

Mitch Keller may have finally grown into the star the Pirates need him to be. His turnaround from the beginning of last season up until now is incredible. This time last season, Keller was banished to the bullpen, searching for answers again in his big league career. Always one of the better prospects in the Pirates’ system; things just never clicked for Keller in the majors. The switch is flipped for him now.

After seven more shutout innings Sunday, The 27-year-old owns a 5-1 record with a 2.38 ERA in nine starts this season. It’s the most superb stretch of Keller’s career, without any doubt. He’s pitching with conviction. The off-speed stuff plays. Keller’s sweeper now gives him six pitches that he can mix to get hitters out. All of this goes without mentioning his complete game shutout on Monday evening.

Keller’s Stat Line

The line in his last two starts: 16 innings pitched, zero runs, eight hits, one walk, and 21 strikeouts. Not a soul is going to complain about those numbers.

In last week’s edition, I wrote about how Keller needed to be the stopper to the Pirates’ losing streak. He did that Monday with the complete game. Sunday, the Pirates had lost four straight since his last start. He pitched lights out to put a stop to another budding losing streak.

Mitch Keller is here and might be here to stay. It’s a massive development for the Pirates. Keller even went on a local radio station this week and said that he and the Pirates have at least begun discussing a contract extension. Locking him up before he becomes incredibly expensive for the Pirates’ taste would be great for the organization.

Andy Haines’ Job Must Be Assessed

When things go right for a team, the coaches never seem to get the credit. When things go wrong, however, everyone wants their head. Andy Haines is the Pirates’ hitting coach. The early season flurry of offense didn’t get people talking about how good of a job he’s doing. However, people are well aware of Haines now.

With the Pirates as an organization attempting to begin the climb to relevancy, bad stretches of baseball can’t just be chalked up to tanking. Quality baseball has to be played, and this is the first stretch where the Pirates are struggling while playing meaningful baseball again.

In this 2-11 stretch, the Pirates are hitting just .180 as a team. That’s just unacceptable. It’s on Haines to try and find the solution and get these hitters out of the funk. Sunday’s win in the series finale against Baltimore and Mitch Keller’s dominant performance could be the jolt the Pirates needed. Otherwise, Haines’ job title may need to come into closer focus as the team heads into the end of May.

Open Competition at Shortstop

Oneil Cruz’s absence is finally taking its toll on the Pirates. Impressively enough, they shrugged off the early season injury and got off to that hot start. Now, the position is starting to suffer.

Cruz is by no means an elite fielder at the position. He gets too many balls that most don’t because of his long reach at 6’7″. He’s also got one of the hardest-throwing cannons in Major League Baseball. Without a doubt, Oneil Cruz is a unicorn.

The rotation at shortstop attempting to replace Cruz has been less than inspiring for the Pirates. Rodolfo Castro has been the main guy in the position thus far. He needs to possess the arm strength to be a shortstop and has struggled to make even the routine plays. In 71 total chances, Castro has made six errors. That equates to a .915 fielding percentage. That could be better.

Tucupita Marcano, Ji-Hwan Bae, and Chris Owings have all seen time at shortstop since the injury. None of them have been able to stake claim to the spot. Marcano is hitting .255 this season but doesn’t possess much arm strength. Bae has made simple plays into complete messes and strikes out too much. Owings just got to the majors this past week but has yet to do much in that time in Pittsburgh so far.

The Pirates have former first-round pick Nick Gonzales in the minors and Liover Peguero awaiting an opportunity for their chance in the major leagues.

Cruz is needed back in the Pirates’ lineup much more than initially realized. They don’t know when they’ll see him again. It could be a long season at that spot for the Buccos.

What’s ahead?

The Pirates will play just five games this week. After a day off Monday, they’ll travel to Detroit for a brief two-game series against the Tigers. They’ll be off again Thursday before a three-game home set with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Detroit is off to an 18-21 start, while the Diamondbacks are hot out of the gates with a 23-18 record, second in the National League West. Things won’t get more accessible for the Pirates as they try and get back to their winning ways, with May soon winding down.

Photo Credit: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Players mentioned:

Mitch Keller, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Tucupita Marcano, Chris Owings, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero


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