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Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s Bucc’n Joe indeed.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Let’s admit it, we were all hyped on Saturday night. For the first time since all of the coronavirus insanity began in March, there was actual Pirates baseball on TV. Sure, it was an exhibition game against Cleveland and didn’t count. An empty PNC Park looked very strange, particularly combined with the piped-in crowd noise. I thought at one point that Greg Brown was going to tie Michael McKenry’s hands behind his back because Fort’s hands were moving as fast as his obviously nervous voice. But it was baseball, and I was happy to see it.

Back in that long-ago time known as February, I wrote “I don’t expect miracles for this team, but I’m not expecting an implosion, either. I’m expecting a young team with fresh management to check things out and see what they can do with what they have.” I’m sticking with that, since both exhibition games were essentially late-term spring training games. However, issues popped up for me almost immediately, some of which have been long-standing for the Bucs.

First and foremost, pitching. All’s not totally lost—Joe Musgrove was impressive in his three innings on Saturday, Chad Kuhl pitched for the first time since 2018 and was effective, as was Steven Brault. After that, though, woof. Kyle Crick was going all over the place. So too was Nick Burdi, who, as the Twitter joke goes, literally gave up a rib to develop a slider (his fastball was still on point). Dovydas Neverauskas, who appeared in both exhibition games, didn’t inspire confidence. Last night’s starter, Trevor Williams, took twelve pitches to get the first Indian out, but somehow he only gave up a run and two hits. Unfortunately, Chris Stratton and Richard Rodriguez, who took the loss, made up for it. Michael Feliz could only hang in there, as did Robbie Erlin. If he didn’t already know, pitching coach Oscar Marin knows now that improving middle and late relief is a priority, because that kills the Pirates so often.

Williams was serving up a ton of fly balls too, which inadvertently showcased new center fielder Jarrod Dyson’s defensive skills. For someone who’s nearly 36 years old, Dyson can flat-out fly, although there were a couple of times when I was thinking that he wouldn’t have had to run like that if he’d judged the ball correctly.

Speaking of center field, Shelton is apparently trying to solve the “too many shortstops” thing by putting Cole Tucker in to replace Dyson for a few innings. Tucker seemed to be having fun and didn’t embarrass himself, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

As far as offense goes, the problem of the Pirates leaving too many men on the bases continues. In last night’s game alone, twenty-two Bucs were stranded, including a bases-loaded situation in the top of the eighth inning. Hitting for extra bases or homering is all well and good, but some guys need to learn to do it when there are people on base. The starting lineups looked much the same in the exhibitions as they did last season. I’m hoping it’s because Shelton’s trying to judge who he needs to shuffle around.

Two minor leaguers have nearly cemented their places on the roster. Catcher John Ryan Murphy will be Jacob Stallings’s backup by default, as Luke Maille is basically out for the season with a surgically repaired broken finger. Infielder Phillip Evans, who has been a favorite of Shelton’s in summer camp, has distinguished himself with his bat a bit and looks to take his place as one of Colin Moran’s backups at third base. Moran’s been swinging a hot bat himself—he’s gone 4-for-8 including a home run—so he could turn out to be a favorite in the DH platoon. ETA: both Murphy and Evans have been added to the Pirates’-man roster.

I keep in mind that there’s been a four-month layoff, and guys are so psyched to be out on the field that nerves could be taking over. This was going to be a tire-kicking season for the Pirates anyway. So far the kicking has been minimal, but I expect that to increase as the season progresses—and progress is what we should start watching for.