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The Pittsburgh Pirates are reeling after a hot start. And Paul Skenes is not there (yet) to help

Vaseline 2 months ago

PITTSBURGH — Martín Pérez knows what winning baseball looks like.

The veteran left-handed pitcher has the World Series hardware to prove it.

He also knows what bad body language looks like. And right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates are showing far too much of that over a six-game stretch, dampening some of the optimism that surrounded the club during a promising start.

“We’re putting too much pressure,” Pérez said after Sunday’s 6-1 loss to Boston dropped Pittsburgh to 11-11. “We are not getting the results we are looking for. We have to come in tomorrow, go out there and enjoy it and try to play better.”

At the moment the threshold is relatively low. The Pirates scored only nine runs during their slide and the finale against the Red Sox was marked by careless errors. Pérez powered through four-plus innings, Pittsburgh ran out two runs at second base and slumping shortstop Oneil Cruz took a routine glance off his glove, allowing an insurance run to score.

“In certain situations, guys try to do a little too much,” Pirates general manager Derek Shelton said. “We just played sloppy in certain situations.”

A year ago, the Pirates sprinted to a 20-8 start before falling into a two-month funk from which they never fully recovered en route to a fifth straight losing season. They believe the painful lessons they learned last spring will help prevent them from hitting rock bottom this time.

When asked what needs to be done to ensure a tough week doesn’t become a repeat of 2023, outfielder Bryan Reynolds preached patience.

“Just looking at the calendar, I see we have 140 games left,” Reynolds said. “Getting in the cage, working on our swings, doing early defense and just keep going.”

The problem right now isn’t the pitching, it’s the offense. The Pirates won 11 of their first 16 by an average of more than five runs per game. They didn’t score more than three while being swept by Boston and the New York Mets.

Cruz, who missed most of last season with a broken left ankle, is hitting just .209 and his 37 strikeouts lead the majors. Shelton dropped the towering 6-foot-4 Cruz to eighth on Sunday in hopes of helping the talented 25-year-old hit the reset button.

“Getting the confidence back is a big part, especially being out for a year, but we work hard every day and fight through some things and we’re here to do that every day to get better,” said Cruz through a translator. “We’ll be fine.”

The starting pitching, considered a weakness early in the season, was actually fine or, in the case of rookie Jared Jones, spectacular at times.

But with Marco Gonzales on the injured list with a left forearm issue and Quinn Priester unimpressive in his 2024 Major League debut after a loss on Friday, the drumbeat became for the Pirates to call for the 2023 top score , Paul Skenes, just louder.

The hard-throwing right-hander was virtually unhittable in Triple-A Indianapolis. The 21-year-old Skenes hasn’t allowed a run in 12 2/3 innings and he’s struck out 27 of the 47 batters he’s faced, most of them with a fastball that regularly tops 100 mph.

While Skenes’ arrival is a matter of “when” and not “if,” the Pirates plan to take a deliberate approach to ensure Skenes is ready. There is little doubt that Skenes has the stuff to take out big-league players. What he doesn’t have – at least right now – is the kind of stamina he needs to start in the majors.

Skenes has not thrown more than 65 pitches in any of his four starts, although that number will increase in the coming weeks. Skenes hasn’t grumbled about being in Triple-A and has pointed out that he needs to become more efficient, a sometimes difficult task for a strikeout pitcher.

General manager Ben Cherington pointed out on his radio show Sunday that Skenes is just in his first full season as a pro and that the team is focused on putting Skenes in the “best position” to succeed when he arrives in Pittsburgh.

Until then – and the best guess is that Skenes will be back in action by early June at the latest, barring a major setback – the Pirates will try to make progress with what they have. Early NL Central leader Milwaukee begins a four-game set at PNC Park on Monday night. Jones, only 22 himself, gets the ball and has the opportunity to take another step forward and stop his team’s deficit.

Shelton struck out Jones for just 59 pitches in his previous start against the New York Mets last week. Jones thinks he has a slightly longer leash this time. It would certainly help get to the bottom of the violation.

“I don’t feel like we’re too far off and I don’t feel like we’re panicking,” outfielder Connor Joe said. “The trust and belief in ourselves and each other still remains consistent and true, which is a good sign for us.”