MLB: Pirates’ pitching progressing from question mark to exclamation point

Published 7:24 am Sunday, May 26, 2024


By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer

 Pittsburgh’s pitching began the eason as a question mark.

Two months later, it’s quickly becoming an exclamation point.

And it’s not just Paul Skenes, the rookie with the 100 mph stuff, the retro mustache, the influencer girlfriend and something called a “splinker.”

It’s Jared Jones. And Mitch Keller. It’s even Bailey Falter, who washed out in Philadelphia but is now thriving on the other side of the state.

The Pirates have plenty of issues as they simmer just under .500 as Memorial Day approaches. The bullpen — particularly Aroldis Chapman — is an issue. So is the hitting (or lack thereof) by offseason acquisitions Rowdy Tellez and Michael A. Taylor and former top overall pick Henry Davis’ inability to stick (for now anyway) as an everyday catcher.

Yet the one constant has been the rapid maturity of Jones and Skenes, Keller’s steadiness and Falter’s quirky left-handed delivery that serves as the soft-tossing yin to the hard-throwing yang of the three right-handers that surround him.

A day after Falter took a shutout into the eighth inning against Atlanta in what became an 11-5 victory, Keller shrugged off a pair of rain delays and kept the Braves under wraps into the seventh in a 4-1 triumph that gave the Pirates their sixth win in their last nine games.

“We’re all pretty close,” Keller said after improving to 6-3. “We’re all pulling for each other and that makes it a lot more fun. We give each other feedback, what we see. I’m not pitching (Sunday) but I feel like I am. … It’s a cool thing we’ve got going.”

A necessary one, too. The Pirates are in the bottom third in the majors in nearly every major offensive category. Yet the emergence of Jones — who somewhat surprisingly won a job out of spring training — and the arrival of Skenes — the top overall pick in last year’s draft — have provided them with a palpable jolt.

“They’re super exciting to watch,” said second baseman Nick Gonzales, who was a teammate with Skenes at Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this year before both were promoted earlier this month. “You’re just excited to see how they perform.”

And so are they. Skenes and Jones have both stressed there is no rivalry to be the ace. Maybe because they’re not, at least not yet. Keller appears in no hurry to give up the role of staff ace.

A year after a breakout 2023 in which he made the All-Star team for the first time, a development that earned him a lavish — by Pittsburgh standards — contract extension in February, Keller appears to be taking another step forward.

The 28-year-old is 4-0 with a 1.30 ERA in May and is becoming one of the most durable starters in baseball. Keller has worked at least five innings in each of his last 42 games, the longest active streak in the majors.

Asked what’s made the difference of late, Keller — currently trying and kind of failing to grow some sort of facial hair — shrugged.

“I think (I’m) just filling the zone up, attacking guys, getting ahead and staying ahead, using the full mix of my arsenal,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of pitches, so the more I can use it, the more it keeps them off-balance. Just executing strikes and using it all.”

He needed it all against the Braves. While he limited the Braves to one run on six hits in 6 2/3 innings, he also received some help behind him. Center fielder Ji Hwan Bae made a diving catch in the third to rob Marcell Ozuna, and left fielder Bryan Reynolds retreated to the warning track to track down a ball off Ozuna’s bat that Keller thought was going to end up 10 rows deep in the seats.

“Can thank the wind for that one,” Keller said with a laugh.

And the Pirates can thank their young rotation for keeping the bottom from falling out. Their recent semi-surge would be even more impressive if not for a pair of losses to San Francisco earlier this week in which Jones and Skenes dazzled only for the bullpen to cough up sizable leads that turned wins into losses.

Pittsburgh’s staff has made 27 quality starts this season. Only front-running Philadelphia has made more. The emergence of Skenes, Keller and company has bought the Pirates some time to get it together offensively.

It also evokes memories for manager Derek Shelton, who spent the better part of a decade as a hitting coach in Tampa Bay in the 2010s while the Rays regularly put together one of the best rotations around, a formula that kept a small-market club competitive in an AL East rife with big spenders.

It’s early, yes, but Shelton sees a chance for the Pirates to have a similar type of success.

“The best thing that you can have is internal competition,” Shelton said. “It’s not competing against each other, it’s competing with each other. (The guys in Tampa) rooted for each other, were there and learned from each other. It’s fun to watch our group do that.”