DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Coincidence or not, Lyles not same since 12K gem ☕

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Jordan Lyles pitches in the first inning Saturday in Milwaukee. - AP

MILWAUKEE -- "My goodness!" Clint Hurdle spoke to reporters three weeks ago out in San Diego, this after a dynamite-all-day Jordan Lyles struck out a dozen Padres and, in doing so, looked like the prize of Major League Baseball's offseason free agency.

There have been exclamations since then, too. Only few have been flattering, and some outright frightening.

"Three innings ... it's embarrassing," Lyles would speak himself Saturday at Miller Park, this after his line of three runs, five hits, four walks and an excruciating pitch count of 92 contributed to the Pirates being cut down again by the Brewers, 5-3. "I need to try to figure out a way out of these few outings I've had now, and get back to how I started the season. And try to get there quickly."

And to do that, he'll need to retake control. Quite literally.

Believe it or not, this Mike Moustakas blast in the home half of the third came on a perfectly placed pitch ...

... but that would prove the exception. Of those 92 pitches, 41 were balls. Half of his 18 batters benefited from three-ball counts. And it wasn't any particular pitch or San Diego or thinking he's something he's never been or anything of that ilk, as I'd try to affirm:

Even the four-seamer, which had been the setup for the rest of his arsenal when things were going well.

How well?

Through that gem at Petco Park, Lyles' eight starts had brought a 1.97 ERA, an amazing rate of 1.03 walks and hits per inning pitched and -- no doubt best of all from the front office perspective -- one of the market's best bargains at one year and $2.05 million. It wasn't quite to the stage where we'd be carving out an All-Star candidacy, but it might not have been far off.

In the four starts since then, spanning only 18 2/3 innings, he's been charged with 16 earned runs, 23 hits and eight walks.

"Basically, it was inconsistent fastball command," Hurdle said. "He tried to mix in his slider. He tried to find time for the changeup. His curveball just seemed to roll on him more than bite, and that wasn't a pitch he was able to drop in."

His best pitch in San Diego, I might add.

"But if you don't throw the fastball for strikes, it's tough to keep them honest with the offspeed. So, it was a combination of that and facing a team that has a lot of confidence hitting here."

As for the frightening: He flicked his arm after a pitch to counterpart Zach Davies in the third inning and drew a hurried visit from Bryan Housand, the overworked athletic trainer. That lasted less than a minute, as it turned out Elias Diaz had overzealously reacted to what he thought was a distraught motion from Lyles following the previous pitch. Hurdle left him in to finish Davies for his final out.

"Nothing there," Lyles explained. "Nothing at all."

The injury, he meant. Not the broader issue of how the Pirates can't conceivably afford for their better pitchers to plunge into the realm of the bad ones and or the hurt ones.

All through this obscene stretch in which the team's pitching has given up 137 runs over 19 games -- or 7.21 per -- the greatest issue, again and again, is that starts have been this short. After which a parade of mostly incapable Class AAA relievers proceeds to push the score into the stratosphere. In this case, it was Michael Feliz, fresh off the Indy Express earlier in the day, giving up what wound up the winning run, followed by Richard Rodriguez making a mess that Francisco Liriano had to clean up as the lone adult in middle relief.

Trevor Williams pitched a sim game here earlier in the day. It was crisp and incident-free, by all accounts, and he could be back in 10 days. Wonderful. But there's a lot of ball between now and then, and there's still no firm date for Jameson Taillon. This remains terrifying territory.

All the fuss of late seems to be about the bullpen, but here's all anyone needs to grasp why getting Lyles right is paramount: The Pirates have now played 63 games. Their starter has lasted six-plus innings in 31 of those, roughly half. And in those 31 where the starter couldn't do his job -- that is still the job, after all -- the team's record is 9-23.

Oh, and over the past 12 games alone, the pitchers have failed to record 12 bleeping outs half the time.

Asked the key to taking these first two games, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell replied without a flinch, "We've gotten to their bullpen by the fourth inning both times. That'll help."

Asked something similar, Hurdle replied, "I think we threw 200 pitches. That's a lot over eight innings."

It was 208, to be precise.

"I mean, we left 13 of their men on base," he continued, "but that was a lot of work we had to do to keep them at five runs."

The hardest work's still ahead.

I've got a separate file with a handful of thoughts on the game.

THE ESSENTIALS

• Boxscore
• Video highlights
Scoreboard
• Standings

THE INJURIES

Trevor Williamsright-hander, is on the 10-day IL with a right side strain. He pitched a simulated game Saturday at Miller Park and is expected to make a rehab start with Class AAA Indianapolis in five days, possibly returning to the Pirates' rotation June 18 against the Tigers at PNC Park.

Francisco Cervellicatcher, is on the seven-day concussion IL.

Jameson Taillonright-hander, is on the 60-day IL with a right elbow flexor tendon strain and is rehabbing in Bradenton, Fla.

Keone Kelaright-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right shoulder inflammation and is rehabbing in Bradenton.

Chris Stratton, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right side discomfort. He pitched a simulated inning Saturday at Miller Park.

• Erik Gonzalez, shortstop, is on the 60-day IL with a left clavicle fracture.

• Nick Burdi, relief pitcher, is on the 60-day IL with right elbow/biceps pain caused by a nerve problem and is rehabbing in Bradenton.

Lonnie Chisenhall, outfielder, is on the 60-day IL with a left calf strain and is currently rehabbing at his home in North Carolina.

THE SCHEDULE

These teams meet again Sunday, 2:10 p.m. Eastern time, with Steven Brault facing Chase Anderson. The clubhouse will open at 11 a.m., with Hurdle speaking shortly thereafter. And after this game, the team will fly down to Atlanta for four with the Braves.

THE COVERAGE

All our expanded baseball coverage, including Indy Watch by Matt WelchAltoona Watch by Jarrod Prugar, and Mound Visit by Jason Rollison, can be found on our team page.

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