The much anticipated debut of Pirates’ pitching prospect was for all intents and purposes over just a few minutes after it had began, as the Pirates fell 8-1 to the Reds in the second game of a day/night double header in Cincinnati.
The first two pitches of Keller’s major league career were fastballs for called strikes to Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel, a batter he’d likely already faced in Triple-A this year. Despite being ahead 0-2, the next four pitches were balls and Senzel walked. Jesse Winker followed with a single lined hard to center field. Keller got ahead 0-2 when Eugenio Suarez fouled off the first two pitches he saw - but then it was three straight balls, a couple more fouls, and finally another ball four to load the bases with nobody out.
Between home plate umpire Jason Visconti’s small strike zone and a like case of nerves, pitching coach Ray Searage saw the necessity to call time and settle down his rookie pitcher. Appearing a bit more settled, Keller blew two high fastballs past Derek Dietrich to complete a strikeout, but then Yasiel Puig lined a first-pitch curve into left to drive in the first run. With the bases still loaded, normally light-hitting Jose Iglesias laid into a 1-1 pitch and everyone watched as the ball sailed deep into the seats in left center for a game-breaking grand slam.
When the first pitch to Jose Peraza was a ball, catcher Jacob Stallings, who had been paired as Keller’s battery mate many times in the minors, went out for a long conversation with his pitcher until chased away by the home plate umpire. Peraza flied out, but then Keller’s pitches were a little too true. Curt Casali dropped a double down the left field line. The pitcher Sonny Gray rolled a soft grounder towards third for a hit and Senzel laced a sharp liner into center for a single.
Ten batters, two walks, six hits. Mercifully Jesse Winker struck out swing at a 2-2 pitch, Keller’s 40th of the inning, to bring the onslaught to an end.
Back in the dugout for a chance to reflect, something must have clicked. Fresh off the punchout of Winker, in the second Keller threw eight of twelve pitches for strikes, catching Dietrich looking and Yasiel Puig swing for two more strikeouts.
Keller kept it up in the third. Twelve of fifteen for strikes, with Peraza going down swinging.
In the fourth, Winker snapped Keller’s streak of consecutive batters retired at nine with a two-out single just past the grasp of second baseman Colin Moran, but Suarez was caught looking on a 3-2 pitch. Twelve of seventeen for strikes.
Of the final eleven batters Keller faced, only one reached base and six went down on strikes without a walk, as 73% of his pitches were strikes (32 of 44)
Alex McRae, a white flag called up from Triple-A as a warm body to fill out the back end of a depleted bullpen, suddenly looked credible as he retired eight batters without allowing a run, but that all came to an abrupt end when Dietrich and Puig connected for monstrous home runs on consecutive swings in the seventh.
The Pirates offense, which erupted for eight runs in the first game, was basically non-existent against Sonny Gray, who allowed just one run in six innings as he scattered six hits and two walks while fanning seven batters. Bryan Reynolds and Josh Bell had two hits each.
The loss drops the Pirates’ record to .500, at 26-26, good for third place in the National League Central, 4 games behind the first place Cubs and 3 games out of the second Wild Card spot.
The series continues at 6:40 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday evening, as the Pirates’ Jordan Lyles (5-1, 2.81) is set to face a Reds’ starter yet to be determined.