Pirates look to shake bullpen struggles vs. Phils

By Thomson Reuters Apr 11, 2024 | 9:26 AM

The Pittsburgh Pirates are off to a superb 9-3 start, yet it’s easy to identify their main weakness so far. They are struggling to close out games.

After David Bednar blew his third save in four chances during the Pirates’ latest contest, Pittsburgh will look to regroup when it visits the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday to begin a four-game series.

The Pirates led the visiting Detroit Tigers 3-1 on Tuesday when Bednar took the mound to start the ninth inning. Minutes later, the Pittsburgh native walked toward the dugout amid a chorus of boos after allowing four runs as the Pirates eventually fell 5-3.

“At the end of the day, there’s no excuse,” said Bednar, who missed most of spring training with an injured right lat. “I need to execute.

“(My teammates) played their butts off today; I wasn’t able to finish it. … I just need to be better and ultimately just throw strikes in the zone. I just was not able to do that today and it ended up costing us the game.”

Bednar’s troubles have been uncharacteristic. The two-time All-Star has already blown as many saves this season as he did in 42 opportunities last year.

Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton attributed Bednar’s rough start to his limited action in spring training, noting that the right-hander’s typically “elite” command has been subpar.

Still, the Pirates have won nine of their first 12 for the first time in six years, and first baseman Rowdy Tellez made it clear on Tuesday that the clubhouse has Bednar’s back.

“We’re a good team. We’re winning for a reason,” Tellez said. “We’re going get our man back on track.”

The Pirates’ bullpen has been sturdy otherwise — Pittsburgh’s 3.65 relief ERA ranks fifth in the National League entering play Thursday. Remove Bednar’s six runs allowed in 4 1/3 innings, and Pirates relievers have a 2.70 ERA.

Shelton will first give the ball on Thursday to rookie Jared Jones (1-1, 3.86 ERA). The 22-year-old right-hander surrendered two solo homers but no other runs in six innings on Friday when the Pirates fell 5-2 to the Baltimore Orioles.

Jones has struck out 17 batters over 11 2/3 innings, including 10 whiffs in his major league debut on March 30 against the Miami Marlins.

Jones will face a Philadelphia offense that has struggled to produce amid a 6-6 start. The Phillies are hitting .234 as a team and have scored more than five runs just once over their first 12 games.

“That’ll change,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “I have full confidence that we’re going to score runs.”

Finding more sustainable production throughout the lineup would be a start. Brandon Marsh (.333), J.T. Realmuto (.289) and Trea Turner (.277) are Philadelphia’s only qualified hitters batting above .238.

Marsh went 5-for-11 to help the Phillies win two of three against the Cardinals earlier this week in St. Louis. The outfielder homered in Philadelphia’s series-opening win on Monday and added his team-high-tying seventh RBI of the season in a rainy 4-3 victory on Wednesday.

“He’s really coming on,” Thomson said. “He’s just giving it great at-bats.”

The Phillies will send veteran Ranger Suarez (1-0, 4.09 ERA) to the mound for the third time in 2024. The 28-year-old left-hander is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA against Pittsburgh across six career appearances (three starts).

Suarez had not allowed a run throughout his first five outings against the Pirates before he surrendered six in 4 2/3 innings during his season finale last September. He has not served up a home run in 24 career innings vs. Pittsburgh.

–Field Level Media