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Opener backfires (again) on depleted staff


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Michael Feliz reacts after giving up a grand slam to the Dodgers' David Freese in the first inning Friday night at PNC Park - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

David Freese was talking before Friday night’s game about how being traded from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles last August changed his perspective on his career.

He had reconciled himself to playing out the string with the non-contending Pirates, then retiring. However, being dealt to the Dodgers and the subsequent trip to the World Series changed Freese’s mind to the point that he decided to play another a year when Los Angeles offered a contract a few days after losing to the Red Sox.

It was easy to understand why Freese’s attitude about baseball changed while watching Friday night’s game.

The Pirates are so desperate for starting pitching that they used an opener for the third time in six games and turned to the erratic Michael Feliz. The Dodgers, meanwhile, started one of the sport’s most-talented young pitchers in Walker Buehler.

Predictably, the National League West-leading Dodgers rolled to a 10-2 victory in the opener of a three-game series at PNC Park. Freese’s grand slam capped a five-run first inning and sent the Pirates (25-24) to their third loss in the last four games.

The Pirates are missing their top two starters as both Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams are on the injured list. They were also without Chris Archer for three weeks before he returned from the IL last week.

Those injuries, along with Class AAA Indianapolis right-hander JT Brubaker also being on the IL, has exposed the Pirates’ lack of starting depth.

Steven Brault and Nick Kingham entered the season as long relievers and considered the Nos. 6 and 7 starters. Each made a pair of starts earlier in the month and got hit hard. The fact the Pirates went with closers instead of Brault or Kingham three times in a week is a clear – if unspoken – indication confidence has been lost in both.

Trying Feliz as an opener was a leap of faith and blew up in the Pirates’ faces. Pitching for the third time in four days, he retired only one of the six batters he faced and even that was a loud out when NL batting leader Cody Bellinger hit a line drive right at Adam Frazier.

Feliz got into trouble immediately as Matt Beaty led off with a single and scored on Max Muncy’s double. Justin Turner followed with a single and, after Bellinger’s liner, Kyle Seager walked to load the bases. Freese unloaded them with a drive to right-center field.

Just like that, the Pirates were down 5-0 and Feliz was out of the game.

“Pitch execution. Behind in the counts. Pitches left out over the plate,” Hurdle said, rattling off a list of Feliz’s problems. “They’ve got a dynamic lineup over there, a helluva team with a lot of great depth. But you’ve still got to make pitches and tonight Michael didn’t do that.”

Feliz started for the first time in 157 major-league games. Not counting rehab appearances, it was also his first start since 2015 when he was pitching at the Class AA level in the Astros’ farm system.

The Pirates were so uncertain about what they were going to do for Friday night’s game that Feliz didn’t find out he was going to be the opener until he got to the ballpark about five hours before game time.

“I wasn’t nervous, I was excited to get my first major-league start,” Feliz said. “Before the game, I did the things I normally do, like go out and play catch. I just didn’t make good pitches and fell behind in the count. That’s what happened.”

Rookie Montana DuRapau was used as the opener both last Saturday against the Padres at San Diego and again Wednesday versus the Rockies at PNC Park. DuRapau pitched two scoreless inning the first time but gave up three runs in 2/3 of an inning Wednesday.

So, in three games, openers have been tagged for eight runs in three innings.

The Rays hatched the opener concept a little over a year ago and have had success with it. However, they have used such pitchers as Sergio Romo, who closed on three World Series-winning teams with the Giants.

“We don’t have that option here,” Hurdle said. “Using an opener wasn’t our plan coming into the season, but our pitching staff has taken three hits with the starting rotation. I may look to use somebody else in that position in the future, or if we do it again. We didn’t incorporate it in spring training because it wasn’t our thought in spring training because of the depth of the rotation and the people we had in play.

"Can some guys do it? Some other people have done it in other places. Our two guys here, I think it was something different for them. More opportunities. Maybe they get better. Unfortunately, up here everything's magnified when it doesn't work."

Richard Rodriguez is the pitcher the Pirates feel is best suited to opening. However, he was optioned to Indianapolis last weekend after being tagged for eight home runs, the most of any major-league reliever, in just 19 2/3 innings.

So where do the Pirates go from here? They will need another starter Monday for a day-night doubleheader against the Reds in Cincinnati.

Will they promote top prospect Mitch Keller from Indianapolis to make his major-league debut? Will they give Brault another chance as a starter after he followed Feliz and allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings? Will they set up a pitching machine on the mound and take their chances?

Kidding about the last option, but Hurdle sounded like a man out of answers following Friday’s game and looked like a man tired of searching for it.

“You’re ahead of me,” Hurdle said when asked about the Memorial Day doubleheader. “We haven’t even had those conversations yet.”

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