Mitch Keller had a game plan to establish command of his fastball and use it inside and out, and the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander followed every sign catcher Jacob Stallings threw down for him.
The result was Keller’s longest and most successful outing of a season where he has struggled, one that helped the Pirates snap a five-game losing streak that included back-to-back shutouts.
“I didn’t shake him one time,” Keller said of Stallings. “Whatever he was throwing down, I was just going for it. Whenever we get into something like that, it’s really special, because there’s just no questioning what he’s putting down. Anything he’s putting down, I feel really confident in.”
Keller’s confidence was boosted by a daring play on the basepaths by Erik Gonzalez, who scored the winning run from second on an infield grounder in the sixth inning to lift the Pirates to a 2-1 victory over the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at Petco Park.
Keller (2-3) had five strikeouts in 5 2/3 scoreless innings while allowing two hits and two walks to lead the Pirates (13-16) to their first victory since April 27. After a 47-pitch first inning in a 9-6 loss to the Kansas City Royals last Wednesday, Keller started the game by retiring the first four Padres batters he faced on 14 pitches.
The turning point for Keller came after he walked Jurickson Profar on four balls but got Manny Machado to chase a fastball outside for a strikeout and cleanup hitter Eric Hosmer to fly out to left field.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” Keller said of following the walk with a strikeout. “The whole mentality was just, ‘Screw it, next pitch.’ I think I did pretty well with that,” Keller said. “When someone got a hit or something like that, I flushed it and went right after the next guy. Next pitch. Didn’t really worry about the last one, just kept moving forward.”
Keller relied heavily upon his four-seam fastball, throwing it on 57 of his 83 pitches while using his slider and changeup to keep the Padres off balance. He pitched into the sixth inning for the first time this season, giving up a one-out single to Trest Grisham and catching a break when umpires ruled that Bryan Reynolds caught a Profar liner to center for the second out before dropping the ball while trying to transfer it from his glove to his right hand.
Keller, however, was removed after a wild pitch allowed Grisham to advance to third and he walked Machado on four pitches to put runners on the corners. Pirates manager Derek Shelton turned to lefty Sam Howard, who got Hosmer to ground out to end the inning in what Shelton called “one of the biggest outs of the game.” It marked the 10th time Howard inherited a runner without allowing a run.
After losing to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0, on Sunday, and the Padres, 2-0, on Monday, the Pirates finally ended their 22-inning scoreless streak in the third. Adam Frazier hit a leadoff double down the left-field line and scored on a double to left-center by Bryan Reynolds for a 1-0 Pirates lead.
Keller got his first major league hit, a single to right off Ryan Weathers in the fifth, to extend the streak of hits by Pirates starting pitchers to three consecutive games. Wil Crowe singled on Sunday and Tyler Anderson singled on Monday night. Keller then slid into second to break up a double-play attempt on Adam Frazier’s grounder. Frazier, however, was picked off at first by Weathers and cost the Pirates another run when Reynolds doubled down the left-field line.
Erik Gonzalez amended for the baserunning gaffe by making an instinct read to score the winning run. Gonzalez singled through the middle and stole second base. He studied Padres reliever Keone Kela, a former Pirates teammate, enough to know that Kela hangs his leg up a little longer than most pitchers, so Gonzalez got a good jump on a slower roller to second base by Stallings and broke for third. When Jake Cronenworth turned to throw to first, Gonzalez took a calculated chance.
“I was like, ‘OK, I have a shot going home,’” Gonzalez said. “The primary goal was to go to third but when I saw that situation happen, I took a really good read on it and said, ‘OK, this is my shot to go home.’”
Stallings hustled down the first base line to draw Hosmer, a four-time Gold Glove winner, off the bag. Gonzalez slid to beat Hosmer’s throw home and Stallings was safe at first on the error. Shelton credited Gonzalez for a “good instinctual play” and Stallings for running hard.
“So Gonzalez, unbelievable read on both sides of it,” Shelton said, “and Stalls going hard attributed to us getting the winning run.”
The Padres cut it to 2-1 in the seventh, when Wil Myers hit a leadoff single off David Bednar, advanced to second on a groundout and scored on a single by Austin Nola. But Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez didn’t allow a hit in the eighth and ninth innings. Rodriguez stretched his streak of scoreless innings to 23 — he’s retired 28 batters in a row in that span — to earn his fifth save of the season.
This night, however, was about Keller being rewarded for finally looking like the pitcher who was their top prospect the past two years instead of the one who struggled to throw strikes and had short-lived outings. His newfound confidence was reflected in how his teammates viewed his performance.
“I know that he’s nasty. He’s got good stuff. He’s a good pitcher,” Gonzalez said. “I believe that he’s in a stage of his career where he needs to get more familiar with the league, more familiar with hitters, just grow in certain areas. I love Mitch. After today’s game, we felt great celebrating him, felt great with the way he went out there and pitched, getting his first hit. We celebrated the heck out of him when we got to the clubhouse.”