Newest challenge for Pirates: Stopping scoreless streak after back-to-back shutouts

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Kevin Gorman, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·4 min read
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May 4—Derek Shelton demonstrated his dismay with the Pittsburgh Pirates' lack of offensive production by shuffling the batting order with eyebrow-raising moves amid what is now a five-game losing streak.

On Sunday, the Pirates manager moved Bryan Reynolds and Colin Moran up in the order to the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in an attempt to get Moran first-inning at-bats. Reynolds had batted third all season, while Moran batted fourth in all but one game. On Monday, Shelton took it a step further by putting Erik Gonzalez into the cleanup role.

The results? Back-to-back shutouts for the first time this season.

The Pirates take a 20-inning scoreless streak, dating to the seventh inning of Saturday's 12-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, into Tuesday night's game at the San Diego Padres. Not only have they wasted some strong pitching performances but also some spectacular defense.

"I think the concern is the fact that we need to create more baserunners, because, I think as you guys have seen, when we win games, we have the ability to move and hit and run and do things," Shelton said. "When you don't have a lot of baserunners, it's harder to do that, because we're not going to sit and bang with anybody."

That's true, as the Pirates (12-16) rank 27th out of 30 MLB teams in both total bases (317) and RBIs (98), 29th in home runs (20) and last in in home runs per at-bat (45.70) through the first 28 games.

Over the past two games — a 3-0 loss Sunday to St. Louis and a 2-0 loss Monday at San Diego — the Pirates are hitting .163 (9 for 55), with three doubles — two by Reynolds — five walks and one hit batsman. Those numbers are actually boosted by starting pitchers Wil Crowe and Tyler Anderson combining to go 2 for 4, with each getting a single.

What's worse, they didn't provide any run support for Crowe or Anderson, especially as the latter took a no-hitter into the seventh inning Monday night. That puts pressure on the pitching staff to prevent runs in a scoreless game, something Anderson dealt with and then addressed.

"I think we want to go out there and pitch the same every day, whether we're up 10 or down 10. Whatever it is, we want to compete the same," Anderson said. "That stuff happens. But I think the big part is to make sure we don't try to do that — any of our starting pitchers, relievers, anybody. When you try to put up zeroes all the time, when you feel like you have to put up zeroes it can be dicey out there."

Shelton's shuffling started after Phillip Evans and Gonzalez went a combined 1 for 16 in the No. 2 hole in the first four games of the five-game homestand. Shelton made the lineup top heavy, with Adam Frazier (.291), Reynolds (.284) and Moran (.276) in hopes that it would "jumpstart" the rest of the batting order. No other Pirates position player is batting better than .250.

One of the biggest drop-offs has come from the player who had a record-setting spring training. Shortstop Kevin Newman — who hit .606 with no strikeouts in Grapefruit League play — is batting below the Mendoza Line this season (.191).

"He's actually just more settled into his legs, and I think his timing is better," Shelton said. "I think we're seeing a similar situation to where he was in spring training, in terms of where his setup was. I think he got away from that a little bit in the first part of the year. I think we're seeing him closer to the setup and movements that he was making during spring training, which were things he'd worked on all winter."

That Gonzalez batted cleanup against the Padres is telling. Gonzalez had never started a game batting fourth in the lineup, and is hitting .218 this season. But veteran Todd Frazier is hitting .048 (1 for 21) this season, while Gonzalez ranks second on the Pirates with 14 RBIs so Shelton's options were limited.

"That played into it a little bit, in terms of just the whole functional lineup and who we're facing," Shelton said. "There were multiple factors that played into it. But the fact that he's had a knack for getting runners in definitely was a factor in it."

It's obvious they miss the bat of rookie third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, who has been on the injured list since April 3 with a sore left wrist. Perhaps now more than ever, the Pirates are itching for his return.

"Every day you see him around, it's a reminder of how special of a kid he is and we just have to make sure that we work to get him back," Shelton said. "Anytime you lose guys that are important to you, it's challenging."

Now, the Pirates have a new challenge — to end their scoreless streak.

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