For the Pittsburgh Pirates to be able to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in four of five games like this season, everything has to be right.
The Pirates’ second straight win against the top team in the National League – a 5-3 win on Tuesday night in front of a roaring crowd of 52,686 at Dodger Stadium – required:
• A few power splashes in the form of two homers from Michael Chavis and Tucupita Marcano that gave the Pirates a 4-0 lead by the end of the second inning.
• Clutch, when unpredictable, pitched by starter Mitch Keller, who is trying to gain manager Derek Shelton’s trust to remain in the rotation. To that end, he may have found a new pitch that could help make that happen.
• Solid relief outings for a total of four innings from four pitchers (none of whom were named David Bednar, by the way). Tyler Beede, Duane Underwood Jr., Chris Stratton and Wil Crowe gave up two hits — and no earned runs. They combined to strike out six. Stratton hit the side in the eighth and Crowe made his second save with a 1-2-3 ninth. Added bonus: None of the four threw more than 20 pitches, potentially keeping them available Wednesday night.
• A strong throw from rookie right fielder Jack Suwinski that hit the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman while attempting to make a double out of a single to start the seventh inning of a one-run game. “It was the game of the game,” said manager Derek Shelton. “It has to be perfect. It has to be online.”
• Three singles from catcher Tyler Heineman, who came into play 1-17. The third preceded Marcano’s sacrificial bunt and a two-out RBI double by Bryan Reynolds for a big insurance run in the ninth inning. It was a welcome clutch hit from Reynolds, who was 2 for his previous 32 at-bats with runners in goal position.
It all added up to a second straight win for the Pirates (21-27) against the Dodgers (33-16) in the last three weeks, with one more game to play.
“I can’t say exactly why,” Chavis said when asked to explain the Pirates’ success against the Dodgers. “But I can say it shows what we are capable of. It takes everyone and it was fun to be a part of it. Needless to say, it’s early in the season. We have a lot of ball to play.”
Keller, who had last trained in the bullpen, made his first start since May 13 and claimed his first win of the season as a starter. But he walked five batters and hit another in five innings. He gave up just two hits — one of which was a two-run homer by Trea Turner — and knocked out five batters.
But he was good when it mattered. He finished off Mookie Betts, a former American League MVP and the current NL home run leader (15), with a groundball to third base with a runner in second in the fourth.
In the fifth, Keller beat Will Smith and Edwin Rios with the last of his 98 pitches. Both times, Keller pulled out his new playfield – a sinker – to land the third strike.
“We talked about it and worked on it,” Shelton said. “It was something we played with, Mitch talked to, he and Oscar (pitching coach Marin) started talking, we played with in the bullpen. He revealed it and it seemed like a really efficient pitch.
“It was important that his four sailor (fastball) stayed between 94 and 97 (mph). His sinker stayed 94 to 97.”
Keller said he tried once in Chicago on May 18, but he hit the Cubs’ Willson Contreras with the field.
He didn’t use it extensively until Tuesday, when he threw it more than every pitch (35% of the time). But he also threw a four-seamer, slider, curve, and changeup to leave the Dodgers in the dark.
“Definitely not back on track,” said Keller, who lowered his ERA to 5.77. “Just roll on with this one and move on to the next. Try to keep the confidence up and let my stuff work in the zone.
“I still don’t feel like my command on (the sinker) is really good. A couple of those pitches where I was trying to get in the middle and they were backdoors called Strike 3s. It’s still not where I want it to be, but I’m comfortable where I have more leeway on the pitch.
“If I leave it in the middle of the zone or in the zone, it has enough movement to throw the batters off balance.”
Pitching kept the game tight, but there was a lot more to the win like Marcano’s bunt, Reynolds’ RBI double and Suwinski’s throw that delighted Shelton.
The manager praised his young team as “rock solid” and he also liked the way they reacted in a highly charged atmosphere in front of a large crowd.
“You probably play in as good an atmosphere as you’re going to play all year,” he said. “Keeping our young children able and performing is important to our growth as we continue to develop.”