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Jim Sankey: Extra Innings: Pirates depressing as mid-season nears

Jun. 4—There's just 21 games until the Pittsburgh Pirates reach the halfway point of the 2024 season.

In a year that owner Bob Nutting said in March he expects the team to be in contention all season, the Bucs have disappointed.

Since April 14, the Pirates' 16 wins are the third fewest in all of baseball.

As the Pirates host the Dodgers this week, and while a sweep by either team does not mean much in a 162-game season, it will be most interesting to see how the Bucco starters perform: Jared Jones scheduled to start last night, Paul Skenes tonight and Bailey Falter on Thursday.

Based on the past month, you'd think that at least when the four best starters of Skenes, Jones, Mitch Keller and Falter start, the team should have a good shot at winning. Overall, the starting rotation is ranked 10th in baseball, and has 30 quality starts in the first 59 games.

Too often the bullpen has ruined the work of the starters. Ranked seventh last year at this point, the bullpen has fueled more opponents' performances than doused, ranking 25th at this point of the season and has saved just 16 in 30 opportunities. The bullpen's 5.21 ERA in May was a National League worst and 27th in Major League Baseball.

Closer David Bednar has finally discovered last year's magic, after blowing three of his first save opportunities, matching the total from the entire 2023 season.

Blame that one on management, who allowed him to throw only a couple of innings in the spring as he nursed an injury, then threw him into games when he should have been rehabbing in AAA to get built back up.

Aroldis Chapman might be the franchise's worst signing, his $10.5 million salary is the highest on the team. But then again, so are his walks, his ERA, his creation of fan angst at every appearance.

Injuries to Carmen Mlodzinski and Ray Borucki and the long illness of Colin Holderman created big holes in a trio that was counted on to cover innings six and seven before handing the game to Chapman and Bednar.

Artificial pitching limitations of the starters have put more importance on a lesser bullpen, as Derek Shelton for no baseball reason yanks starters.

As bad as the pitchers have been, they're all Cy Young candidates when compared to the offense.

Pittsburgh's team .229 batting average is 25th and the .731 OPS ranks 27th and when batters reach base, the figures are even uglier. Its 150 strikeouts with runners on base rank 29th, and a .207 average with runners in scoring position is also next to last. No wonder the Pirates rank 21st in runs scored.

The defense hasn't helped much either: The team's 35 errors are the ninth-most in baseball.

Two young players were counted on to provide more home runs in 2024, but Jack Suwinski and Henry Davis played themselves back to AAA.

Suwinski hit only four homers before heading to AAA, which is the same number that Ke'Bryan Hayes, Davis, Michael A. Taylor and Rowdy Tellez have hit combined.

The Post-Gazette's Jason Mackey wrote this week that the just-recalled Davis appeared to have "... completed his development this past spring.

"However, once the season started, Davis' bat went cold," Mackey added. "He began tweaking various things about his swing, including his hand placement and setup. But in the minors, Davis has returned to looking and feeling much more athletic at the plate."

Tellez used some time off to address a season-long batting funk. After driving in four runs on Sunday, he explained his approach.

"I went back to how I usually hit," Tellez said. "Just got comfortable and kind of said, 'Screw it' and hit how I want to hit and do what I wanted to do. ... Just going back to what I was comfortable with, what I had success with over the years."

Shelton often says that a certain player "needs to make that play" or "has to move the runner over" or "has to get a ground ball." It's his job to do more than state the painfully obvious.

So why does it take so long for changes? Isn't this what coaches are expected to do?

Just one game from last place in their division, Cherington claimed last Sunday that he feels the 2024 team is better than the 2023 team that improved by 14 games.

Maybe he's not watching the same team we are.

JIM SANKEY is Allied News' Pittsburgh Pirates columnist. His work appears weekly during the baseball season.

JIM SANKEY is Allied News' Pittsburgh Pirates columnist. His work appears weekly during the baseball season.