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The Pirates Have a Bullpen Problem Without an Obvious Solution

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Carmen Mlodzinski, Pittsburgh Pirates

PITTSBURGH — The same issues the doomed the Pittsburgh Pirates against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night were present again in the series finale on Thursday afternoon.

The Pirates had a five-run lead and were up by two runs entering the eighth in the second of three games on Wednesday. The bullpen crumbled late and allowed six unanswered runs, resulting in a 9-5 loss in 10 innings.

On Thursday, the Pirates were up 6-2 in the eighth inning, though the seemingly-comfortable lead quickly vanished. The Giants opened the inning with five-straight hits including a Matt Chapman three-run home run to tie that game. With two outs in the inning, San Francisco scored what turned out to be the decisive run in the Pirates’ 7-6 loss.

“Too many fastballs in the middle of the plate,” said manager Derek Shelton on what plagued the Pirates’ bullpen. I mean, that’s the commonality with our bullpen right now, too many fastballs in the middle of the plate. Can’t do it. We tried to go up to (Matt) Chapman yesterday and (he) hit the homer. We tried to go up again today and he hit the homer.”

Entering the season, it looked like the Pirates’ bullpen was going to be a key strength for the team but it certainly hasn’t worked out that way.

Two-time All-Star David Bednar stumbled out of the game and has a 7.08 ERA through his first 23 appearances. Aroldis Chapman, who was signed to a $10.5 million contract, has walked 20 batters in 16.1 innings and is 0-3 with a 4.41 ERA.

Carmen Mlodzinski was a big part of the Pirates’ bullpen last year but started the season on the injured list and was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis upon his return. He hasn’t found his footing with Indianapolis or in his brief showing with the Pirates.

Colin Holderman has been the most reliable arm out of the Pirates’ bullpen, but like Mlodzinski, he too missed the start of the season.

As of the conclusion of Thursday’s game, the Pirates ranked 26th in baseball with a 4.66 ERA from their relievers. After being charged with six runs in three innings in their latest lost, the Pirates’ bullpen has a 5.66 ERA in May.

“We have to be better,” a typically even-keeled Shelton bluntly stated. “Our bullpen has to be better. We have to win games like that.”

One big problem with the bullpen’s far-too-often missteps? There aren’t many internal options who can step in and fix things at the snap of a finger.

The Pirates recalled Jose Hernandez from Indianapolis to bring their bullpen back up to capacity, leaving bare cupboards with other pitchers who could provide some aid.

Ryder Ryan was optioned on Tuesday and he must spend 15 days in the minor leagues unless he replaces someone on the active roster due to an injury.

The other pitchers on the 40-man roster not currently in Pittsburgh or on the injured list? Braxton Ashcraft, Daulton Jefferies and Quinn Priester.

The Pirates won’t pry Priester or Ashcraft from their respective minor-league rotations and stunt their development as starting pitchers. Jefferies was designated for assignment by the Giants before the Pirates acquired him via trade, implying limited upside.

If the Pirates were to look for a solution in someone not on the 40-man roster, would it move the needle at all? At that point, it would be hoping for a miracle.

It’s on the current mix of arms to make things right because for whatever reason, there isn’t much depth behind them.

It’s a worrisome issue for the Pirates and one that would not have seemed to be prevalent at the beginning of the season. Even more troubling is the lack of depth to help navigate the rough waters on the Pirates’ ship.

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