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Even With Talented Rookies, Mitch Keller Still Pirates’ Ace

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Pittsburgh Pirates, Paul Skenes, Mitch Keller, Jared Jones

PITTSBURGH — The national spotlight has shined on the Pittsburgh Pirates more than usual during the 2024 season.

It’s because the Pirates have two of the top rookie pitchers in baseball. Jared Jones has spent the entire season in the starting rotation. He has the third-most strikeouts amongst rookie pitchers and a very respectable 3.25 ERA through 12 starts.

In addition to Jones, last year’s top pick Paul Skenes is the biggest reason as to why the eyes of the baseball world wander towards Pittsburgh every fifth day.

There hasn’t been as much hype surrounding a pitching prospect as there has been with Skenes in over a decade at minimum. Through the first five starts of his career, he’s matched all the buzz he’s generated.

Even with two promising young arms capturing most of the attention, Mitch Keller has proven time and time again that he’s still the ace of the Pirates’ pitching staff.

Keller blanked the Minnesota Twins at PNC Park on Friday night in the Pirates’ 3-0 win. The right-hander worked six innings, allowed seven hits, walked a pair and struck out eight.

“He did a really good job tonight,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “He had to pitch out of a jam in the first, he had to pitch out of a jam in the fifth. I think we continue to see why he’s a frontline starter. That’s what frontline starters do.”

Keller’s start on Friday night continued a tremendous run on the mound. He’s gotten the win in six-straight starts and has worked at least six innings in all of those outings.

Over that stretch, Keller owns a 1.13 ERA. To repeat, a 1.13 ERA. He’s allowed five runs over his last 39.2 innings pitched.

Even though Keller has been on one of the best runs in baseball, it seems like he’s been overshadowed somewhat by the Pirates’ rookie duo. Though that may be the case, Keller is leading by example as some youthful eyes observe.

“I think (he’s been overshadowed) a little bit, and understandably so when you have two of the premier young starters in the game and there’s been a lot of buzz with Paul being 1.1.,” said Shelton. “But this is a guy that’s been rock solid for us. This is the guy those two guys are going to learn from. You learn from that experience today. You learn from watching someone.

“I think the other thing about it is, we talk about the maturation of Mitch, you go back years and think about the steps he’s taken, they can take a lot away from that, and I think that’s really important.”

With Keller atop the Pirates’ rotation followed by two very talented pitchers in Skenes and Jones — not to mention the reliable Bailey Falter — the Pirates have a very formidable starting rotation, an area that looked like it would be a question mark heading into the season.

It’s no knock on Skenes or Jones, either, to say that Keller is the staff ace. As good as those two have been, Keller has pitched like a Cy Young ever since the calendar flipped from April.

Keller began the month of May by throwing a complete game against the Colorado Rockies in Pittsburgh, which offered only a taste of what was to come since that start.

Though that looks like the turning point of the season, Keller said not much has changed from the beginning of the year.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good. The numbers just weren’t there in April. I feel kind of the same. Probably more crisp now that it’s warming up. I just feel a little bit better each time out.”

After his latest gem, Keller is 8-3 with a 3.16 ERA through 13 starts in 2024.

Keller signed a $77 million extension with the Pirates this offseason. If his recent performance is a sign of things to come, that deal looks like a steal.

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