One of the biggest storylines for the Pittsburgh Pirates coming into Sunday’s game was how Mitch Keller would fare against Miami Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award.
Pirates fans probably didn’t expect Keller to match Alcantara pitch for pitch. Yet Keller pretty much did just that as the Pirates dropped a 6-5 decision in 10 innings at PNC Park.
Alcantara went six innings and allowed two hits, two earned runs and threw walks to go with 10 strikeouts while throwing 105 pitches.
Keller went six innings and gave up, five hits, three earned runs, and no walks with seven strikeouts. His pitch count was 74.
One run and three strikeouts separated Keller from Alcantara. One could argue Keller had a slightly better game if you value efficiency.
A game like this seemed to bring out the competitive edge in Keller that so many have wanted to see.
“We’re seeing the next evolution of [Keller] as a starter,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “What’s plagued Keller in the past were those high pitch count innings, and today, he threw only 74. Keller is getting to the point to where he’s becoming more consistent since (adding) the sinker.”
Speaking of sinkers, Keller didn’t go to the pitch as often Sunday, throwing it just 19% of the time. Keller primarily used his slider, throwing it 31% of the time then blowing hitters away with the four-seam fastball at the top of the strike zone.
“Keller had a real good feel for (the slider), ” said Shelton. “Keller threw one bad slider the whole game for the homer, but other than that, I thought the execution was good. The one thing that we’ve talked about with Keller was whichever breaking ball is working, stay with it. Today it happened to be his slider.”
At times Keller will take a few ticks of velocity off on his slider for more consistency in the strike zone. Other times, he will ramp it back up to get guys reaching. That development from Keller has taken a long time, but I think the consistency with his slider is reaching a good point.
“I think the ability to add or subtract to the slider is very important,” said Shelton. “We saw up to 96-97 with the fastball, and then when you can vary the slider, it’s really important because you’re getting different looks.”
Keller has now gone four straight outings of at least six innings pitched and hasn’t given up more than four runs in a game in July. Keller’s ERA for July is 2.88 in 25.0 innings pitched.
What are some of the things that may be causing Keller’s success?
“Using all of my pitches, especially the sinker and slider with a four-seam here and there,” said Keller. “I have a good plan going in and attacking the zone. I’m trying to (get an out) on three pitches or less and trying to get the ball on the ground, especially with the sinker. If the strikeouts come, they come, but I’m looking for early contact.”
With Keller, things are starting to look up.
I know the jokes are out there, but somewhere former Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage is laughing with Keller starting to master early contact and using a sinker pitch on a regular basis. That’s the way Uncle Ray used to teach it.