Pittsburgh Pirates Unable to Sweep Atlanta Braves After Bullpen Breakdown

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 07: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a home run in the third inning against the Atlanta Braves during the game at PNC Park on July 7, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 07: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a home run in the third inning against the Atlanta Braves during the game at PNC Park on July 7, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates took on the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the three-game series and were unable to come away victorious after a breakdown in the bullpen. After today’s loss, the Pirates fall to 32-54 on the year.

In game one of the series, Chase De Jong took the hill and he got all the run support he needed as the Pirates defeated the Braves 11-1. The Pirates 1-6 hitters each had at least two hits, including the red-hot Ben Gamel who had three hits, including a home run and 6 RBI. Ke’Bryan Hayes also hit an opposite-field 2-run home run in the 8th inning to put any chance of a miraculous comeback to rest. Newly-acquired 1B/OF John Nogowski, who came over from St. Louis in exchange for cash considerations, chipped in two hits of his own along with an RBI.

Game two had a bit of a different storyline as yesterday’s game was an absolute pitcher’s duel from the very beginning. Chad Kuhl went 6 innings and gave up 1 run on 4 hits. He did not walk a batter and struck out 7. His only blemish was a solo shot off the bat of Orlando Arcia but other than the one mistake, Kuhl was very dominant in yesterday’s outing. After Kuhl was lifted the bullpen locked it down as Chris Stratton, David Bednar and Richard Rodriguez shut the door in the 7th, 8th and 9th with the score tied 1-1. In the bottom of the 9th, patience was the key to victory for the Bucs as Rodolfo Castro, who was recently recalled after the news of Gregory Polanco and Phillip Evans heading to the IL, walked to lead off the inning. Adam Frazier then singled and Ke’Bryan Hayes walked to load the bases with nobody out and Bryan Reynolds stepping to the dish. The newly-recognized 2021 All-Star walked as well and the Pirates walked off the field as victors Tuesday night.

Today’s Action

Wil Crowe looked to be off to a smooth start in the third and final game of this homestand after retiring Ronald Acuña Jr and Freddie Freeman to lead off the 1st, however Ozzie Albies doubled and Austin Riley singled to center to give the Braves an early 1-0 lead.

In the bottom half of the inning, Adam Frazier led off with the patented “Adam Frazier single” – a bloop over the head of shortstop Dansby Swanson to get things rolling for the Pirates. Ke’Bryan Hayes has begun to work his way out of his recent mini-slump as he has seen his batting average drop to as low as .245. Perhaps this was a bit of a wake-up call for the young star as, after doubling twice in last night’s contest, the rookie doubled to right-center to advance Frazier to third with no outs in the first. Bryan Reynolds then grounded to Dansby Swanson at short who made a nice play to easily tag Frazier out at the plate. With one out and two men on, however, Jacob Stallings put all worry to rest as he crushed a four-seam fastball into the seats in right-center to give the Pirates an early 3-1 lead.

In the top of the third inning, Ronald Acuña Jr did Ronald Acuña Jr things as he blasted a four-seam fastball 444-feet into the bleacher seats in left field to cut the Braves deficit to one. Austin Riley then hit a ball out into the notch in left-center that would have been a home run in 28 of 30 ballparks but this one resulted in a double for Riley and Crowe was able to induce an inning-ending foul out from Orlando Arcia to keep the score at 3-2.

The Big Nogowski

In his brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021, 1B/OF John Nogowski compiled a slash line of .056/.150/.056. Not eye-popping numbers by any stretch of the imagination and frankly the move was a bit surprising as Will Craig remains in AAA Indianapolis and Mason Martin continues knocking the cover off the ball in AA Altoona. Martin has posted a .270/.333/.611 slash line to go along with 15 home runs and 45 RBI through his first 49 games this season.

Nogowski was originally drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 34th round in 2014 but made his brief MLB debut in St. Louis in 2020. He was acquired last Saturday in exchange for cash considerations after OF Ka’ai Tom was placed on the 10-Day IL with a lower back strain. The Nogowski acquisition appears to simply be a low-risk move but for the time being it seems the Pirates front office may just want to have a look at what he has to offer until Colin Moran (wrist) returns from the IL.

Moran said recently that the soreness in his fractured left wrist has subsided and he hopes to begin his return to baseball activities soon. Phillip Evans has filled in at first base throughout the first half of the season although the Pirates will be without him as well for at least the next seven days as he has been placed on the concussion injured list after awkwardly sliding into third base in Monday’s win.

Along with Moran and Evans, Erik Gonzalez, who has filled in at first base when needed, has also landed on the 10-Day IL with a “right side injury” on Friday but claims he’s feeling better and has resumed running at 60 percent. It appears as though he’ll be sidelined through the All-Star break but it is looking like it’ll be a short stint on the IL for Gonzalez.

With all of this going on, John Nogowski seems to be the go-to first baseman for the time being, so the hope is that he’ll continue to produce in the middle of the lineup for the Bucs until Moran makes his return. The top of the lineup in Frazier, Hayes and Reynolds has been extremely productive so it will be up to the middle of the order to cash in on the opportunities when they arise.

Nogowski kept his hot start going this afternoon as he went 4-5 in today’s contest. The 29-year-old is now 7-12 (.583 AVG) with an RBI and 3 runs scored through his first three starts in a Pirate uniform.

Wil Crowe’s Final Line

In his last start against Milwaukee, Crowe went 4.2 innings, surrendering 2 runs on 4 hits along with 3 walks and 6 strikeouts in the Pirates 7-2 loss to the Brewers. After the loss, Crowe’s 2021 record dropped to 1-5 but actually lowered his ERA from 6.50 to 6.26.

Today was much of the same as once again Crowe was ineligible for a win after failing to reach the 5 inning mark. The righty surrendered 2 runs on 6 hits with 2 walks and 4 strikeouts. He recently picked up his first Major League win on June 25th after throwing 5 innings of 4-run ball in St. Louis, however Crowe has yet to make it past the 5-inning mark since May 8th and has only one quality start to his name this season.

Kyle Crick Struggles

To begin the season Kyle Crick was Manager Derek Shelton’s go-to set-up man in front of closer Richard Rodríguez. Crick was absolutely dominant, to say the least. He did not allow a run through the month of April and the team and fans alike simply had confidence every time he stepped on the mound, no matter the circumstances. Since April, however, things have gone downhill for Crick a bit as he has lost his control as of late. Since the beginning of May, Crick has a 14:12 BB/K ratio and that type of inconsistency is not going to secure a set-up role for long.

In today’s game, Crick entered in the top of the 6th inning as his set-up role may be on hold for a bit to possibly get his confidence back up in some lower-leverage situations. Despite that, he proceeded to walk Swanson and Guillermo Heredia to begin the inning. After a sacrifice bunt, pinch-hitter Abraham Almonte singled to center to score Swanson and Heredia. With the Braves up 4-3, Acuña Jr. then singled and Crick was lifted for Chasen Shreve with two men on and one out. Shreve was able to get Freeman to line out to left but then walked pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza and Austin Riley to bring a run home. Orlando Arcia then broke the game open and gave the Braves a 7-3 lead with a single to left-center that scored Acuña Jr and Adrianza.

At this point, it seems unlikely that Shelton would go to Crick in a high-leverage situation in the 8th inning for the time being, and David Bednar (3.27 ERA/3.74 FIP) may be emerging as the next best option as the teams’ set-up man.

Rain Delay

With two outs in the top of the 7th inning, a 1 hour and 18-minute rain delay put a pause in the action but eventually Kyle Keller was able to finish off a scoreless inning with the score still 7-3 Braves.

After a John Nogowski single and a Wilmer Difo walk it looked as though the Pirates were beginning to make a run at a comeback. Kevin Newman then flew out to right and Jared Oliva fouled out to first to bring pinch-hitter Ben Gamel to the plate with 2 outs. LHP A.J. Minter was called upon out of the bullpen to face the lefty Gamel and Gamel came through. A single up the middle advanced the runners up and loaded the bases for the leadoff man Frazier. The All-Star struck out in a rare poor at-bat and the score remained 7-3.

Despite the fact that the Pirates were unable to take advantage of the bases-loaded opportunity, Ben Gamel has put together a very solid month of July thus far with 10 hits through 23 AB’s (.435 AVG) with 2 doubles, 4 home runs and 8 RBI.

More Bullpen Trouble

In the top of the 8th inning, Duane Underwood Jr got the call and did not come close to delivering a clean inning. Adrianza singled to lead off the inning and then after an Austin Riley lineout, Ender Inciarte doubled off the Clemente Wall to give Atlanta an 8-3 lead. Swanson followed with a double of his own to score Inciarte and then Jonathan Lucroy singled to score Swanson and then to make matters worse, Abraham Almonte homered to right-center to give the Braves a 12-3 lead.

Following Almonte’s home run, Acuña Jr and Freeman both singled and then Adrianza doubled home the two runs in his second at-bat of the inning and the Pirates were looking at a 14-3 deficit heading into the bottom half of the inning.

Underwood Jr really struggled in today’s contest, surrendering 7 earned runs on 8 hits in just one inning of work. This performance ballooned his ERA from 3.67 to 4.86 and he is going to need to turn things around quickly.

Rather than wasting another bullpen arm in a blowout game such as today’s, Manager Derek Shelton cut his losses and went to none other than John Nogowski to throw the 9th inning. A groundout, single and double-play later and Nogowski had himself a 7-pitch inning.

As if that wasn’t enough, Nogowski led off the bottom of the 9th with a line-drive single to left for his fourth hit of the day.

Most likely not how the newly acquired 1B/OF envisioned his tenure in Pittsburgh to begin but we’ve got no complaints in terms of his play thus far. Despite his “solid” inning, hopefully Nogowski’s mound skills aren’t needed again moving forward.

What’s Next: 

After taking 2 of 3 against the Atlanta braves the Pirates (32-54) will match up against the Mets (45-37) in an 8-game home and home series beginning tomorrow night in New York. JT Brubaker (4.09 ERA/4.62 FIP) will look to bounce back from the home run-filled outing in his last start against Milwaukee as he lines up against Taijuan Walker (2.44 ERA/3.06 FIP). First pitch is set for 7:10 PM ET.