Mitch Keller struggles, Anthony Alford homers as Pirates tie Blue Jays

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Kevin Gorman, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·3 min read
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Mar. 1—Mitch Keller wanted to focus on filling up the strike zone. Instead, when the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander had trouble throwing strikes, he was forced to work on pitching from behind in counts.

Keller allowed two runs on three hits in the first inning of a 2-2 seven-inning tie with the Toronto Blue Jays in a Grapefruit League game Monday at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla. MLB is allowing teams to play shortened games in spring training.

In his first outing, Keller threw only 11 of his 21 pitches for strikes, as he got behind on a 2-0 count three times and threw only one first-pitch strike to the six batters he faced.

Keller allowed a single by Joe Panik, who advanced to third on a triple by Rowdy Tellez and scored on Alejandro Kirk's sacrifice fly to center for a 1-0 Blue Jays lead. Breyvic Valera added an RBI single to left to score Tellez for a 2-0 lead. Keller recovered to strike out catcher Danny Jansen on a 97-mph fastball to end the inning.

"At the start, it felt like I was kinda trying to throw strikes rather than just throwing it hard and doing what I do," Keller said. "The last couple hitters there I felt like I was getting back into a groove. My last fastball of the outing, I just kinda said, '(forget) it,' and threw it kinda hard like I'm used to. Didn't worry about where it went.

"It played out nicely. I think when I throw harder, I actually locate better instead of trying to throw strikes. It was a good learning experience for me. Just kinda getting back into the way I used to feel. Saw velocity was up today, which I already knew it was gonna be from the offseason I had. I felt really good coming in. Just letting it rip and throwing strikes."

The Pirates cut it to 2-1 in the second inning when designated hitter Anthony Alford smashed a 413-foot homer to center field off Robbie Ray in his first appearance against his former team.

The Pirates claimed the outfielder off waivers last August when the Blue Jays designated Alford for assignment. Alford shined in five games before suffering a fractured right elbow when he crashed into the center-field wall at PNC Park, an injury which required surgery.

"It felt good to get that first one," said Alford, whose throwing has limited him defensively. "It was kind of nerve-wracking to play against my old teammates, a lot of guys that I came up through the system with and built a strong bond with. They're like family, but to get out there and compete against them was a lot of fun."

The Pirates tied the game at 2-2 in the third when another player who endured a season-ending surgery, Phillip Evans, hit a two-out RBI single to center off Nate Pearson to score Hunter Owen. Evans was batting a team-best .359 when he collided with Gregory Polanco in foul territory along the right-field line and broke his jaw.

The game also marked the Pirates debuts of second baseman Wilmer Difo, center fielder Brian Goodwin, catcher Michael Perez and left fielder Troy Stokes Jr. in the starting lineup, as well as 2020 first-round pick Nick Gonzales and relievers Chasen Shreve and David Bednar of Mars, who was acquired from San Diego in the Joe Musgrove trade.

Shreve threw strikes on eight of nine pitches in a 1-2-3 third inning, while Bednar recorded two strikeouts and didn't allow a hit in the fourth.

The Pirates play the Detroit Tigers at 1:05 p.m. Tuesday in their home opener at LECOM Park, with right-hander JT Brubaker scheduled to face Casey Mize. The game will be the first of 14 spring training home games to be televised by AT&T SportsNet and will be broadcast on 1020-AM.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .