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Bad bullpen brings Bucs back down to Earth

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Pirates entered Saturday night’s game against the Reds with momentum on their side. Off to a 6-1 start, their best since the 1976 season, everything seemed to be coming up Buccos.

And when Pittsburgh jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, it seemed as if the Bucs were well on their way to winning their seventh of eight games in 2018.

Then Eugenio Suarez came along and rained on the Pirates presumptuous parade. Suarez drove in Cincinnati’s final five runs as the Reds beat the Bucs 7-4 and handed Pittsburgh its second loss of the season.

With a 4-2 lead, starter Chad Kuhl gave way to Dovydas Neverauskas in the sixth inning and the Lithuanian struggled mightily, loading the bases before allowing a two-run hit to Suarez.

Neverauskas, who was probably left on the mound for too long, allowed three hits and a walk in his third rough outing of the season. The righty entered the game with an unsightly 10.13 ERA and left having that ERA inflated to 12.27.

“We’ve seen better [from Neverauskas], but we haven’t seen better lately,” Hurdle said. “That was another hard sixth inning for us.”

Then, with the game tied in the eighth inning, George Kontos first ran into some bad luck, allowing two groundball singles, before serving up a belt-high fastball that Suarez blasted into the left field bleachers for a game-winning, three-run homer.

Kontos, who typically relies on deception rather than velocity, said that he made a mistake by giving Suarez one too many fastballs to hit.

“I’m typically not a guy who goes and challenges people with fastballs,” Kontos said. “I’ve got a pretty deep arsenal that I’ve had a lot of success with. I just second-guessed [myself] instead of pitching to my strengths.”

This was obviously a disappointing result for the Pirates and it’s a good reminder that the rest of this season likely won’t go as smoothly as the first seven games did. Whatever kind of rebuilding or retooling process the Pirates are going through is not going to happen without some bumps along the way.

The Pirates bullpen, in particular, is a work in progress. With the exception of Felipe Rivero, every Buccos reliever is assuming a role this season that they haven’t done in the past.

Kontos’s only experience as a setup man came in the waning months of last year. Michael Feliz, who threw his most efficient frame of the season in the seventh, has struggled to keep a late-inning role in the majors. Tyler Glasnow, Edgar Santana, and Neverauskas all spent last season bouncing between the majors and Triple-A.

This bullpen has the potential to become good, but there are going to be some growing pains. Pirates fans just have to hope that the bullpen’s good days will ultimately outweigh the bad.

Keeping his Kuhl

Saturday night’s game was a bit of a roller coaster for Chad Kuhl. The Pirates starter threw a lot of pitches – 98 through five innings – and walked three batters. But when push came to shove, the Buccos righty buckled down and made pitches.

Five of Kuhl’s seven strikeouts on the evening came with runners on base, including a huge sequence in the fifth inning where he struck out Scooter Gennett and Adam Duvall to work his way out of a bases-loaded jam.

Hurdle applauded Kuhl’s tenacity, but said that the righty pitched his self into some corners.

“He was good enough to keep away from a big inning, but to throw a hundred pitches in five innings was a challenge,” Hurdle said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Kuhl wound up allowing two runs on five hits and three walks.

Romano rights the ship

While the pitching staff deserves its criticism for a poor performance, the Pirates’ offense quickly dried up as they let Reds starter Sal Romano off the hook after he surrendered four early runs.

Jordy Mercer singled in the third inning and the Pirates did not have another baserunner until Colin Moran singled in the ninth inning. Sixteen straight Pirates came to bat and failed to reach base.

“We have seen Romano do this before, the whole league has” Hurdle said. “You scratch him early and then he settles in.”

Reds reliever Wandy Peralta, who pitched two flawless innings, wound up with the win while closer Raisel Iglesias earned his second save of the season.