Kovacevic: Keller’s tourniquet for the torment ☕


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Mitch Keller pitches Monday night in Anaheim. - AP

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Fire everyone.

Hey, it's not like that'll waver based on any one outcome.

At the same time ... man alive, the Pirates did win a baseball game. And Mitch Keller did finally break through with his first solid big-league start. And Kevin Newman, Jacob Stallings, Bryan Reynolds and Josh Bell did go deep.

And yeah, to repeat for all those who went to bed before the post-midnight finish back home, the Pirates really, really did win a baseball game, and to boot, they won it big, 10-2 over the Angels on this Monday night at Angel Stadium.

"Honestly," as Reynolds would tell me, "it was just nice to come out on top."

That was both evident and audible. In the immediate aftermath, while the doors to the visiting clubhouse were still closed to media, I could hear loud, boisterous cheering and other upbeat mayhem from inside. Louder even than blaring music that hadn't exactly been heard much through the eight-game losing streak that preceded this or the broader 5-24 free fall since the All-Star break.

The main reason for all the hoopla, as I'd confirm, was Keller being feted for his first big-league W.

"Just amazing," the kid would tell me. "I'll never forget it."

Good for him. It wouldn't be any pitcher's pinnacle line -- five innings, two runs, one earned, five hits, four strikeouts, couple walks, hit batter, 94 pitches -- but it was a sizable stride forward from his first three big-league starts, in at least three facets I could cite:

1. He mixed it up.

He and Stallings mixed in far more breaking pitches -- 37 against 57 fastballs -- and did so, almost brazenly, in any count and any situation. Never mind that he was routinely bringing the heat at 97 mph. The usage of the rest, as well as the command, stood out.

Clint Hurdle always summarizes these things well: "The sequencing of the pitches was probably the most encouraging part for me. I think Stallings did a fantastic job of calling the game that Mitch needed to pitch tonight, on and off, add and subtract, fastball crossfire to all four corners, threw the curveball, the slider played well, some changeups. I thought they worked extremely well together."

I went to Stallings with that, too, and all he'd offer was, "Give Mitch the credit. He put the pitches where they needed to go."

Most impressive, at least from this perspective, was the way he went rabidly after Shohei Ohtani, throwing him everything and getting a strikeout, a groundout and a 6-3 double play to show for it.

Check out the K in the first at-bat:


"That was a big one for me, not going to lie," Keller told me. "I felt a lot more confident after that."

This, incidentally, is why the front office was right to send Keller back to Class AAA Indianapolis and keep him there until all four pitches were rolling. Nobody could possibly be more generally critical of Neal Huntington and his lieutenants than I've been, but I've backed them on Keller's handling all summer. A need at the top level should never supersede the development of a top prospect.

Keller isn't just the Pirates' top pitching prospect, mind you. He might be their only significant pitching prospect. (Which is when I go right back to criticizing those guys, but hey.)

Bottom line: He went down, did his work and returned better equipped for this.

Which I confirmed right from the source:

2. He stood up to Mike Trout.

Keller's born and raised in Iowa, but he's often told the tale of having grown up a fan of the Angels principally because they employ Major League Baseball's finest player. So here he was, coming back to the bigs and having to pitch to precisely that guy.

He'd confess to me, "No matter how much you brace yourself, it's still an experience. You're out there on the mound against the best player in the world. There's no way that doesn't affect you."

As if he'd need more, Trout stood outside the box a moment and gave Keller a knowing nod before stepping in.

"Cool moment," Keller would say.

But that was it. Although Trout would characteristically eat up 19 of Keller's pitches -- more than 20 percent of his night -- he'd do no more damage than a flyout and two walks. And even the walks were duels, one of eight pitches and the other of seven.

"It's not like Mitch was working around him," Hurdle observed.

Not at all, apparently.

"I just wanted to go at him with my best stuff," Keller said. "See if he could hit it."

3. He raised his team up. 

It's not enough that the kid carries the pressure of his prospect status. It's not enough that he'd want to overcome doubts from his first three starts for the Pirates, which amassed a 10.50 ERA and a whole lot of ego bruising. It's not enough that he'd do so against Trout, Ohtani, Albert Pujols and company.

But how about picking up a team, even if just for an evening, that's been buried in a historically bad stretch?

Hurdle noticed.

"He's been separate from it all because he hadn't been here, but he's been aware of it," Hurdle said. "It was good to see him come in and put his foot down for us."

"When you have someone like Mitch who you know is the future around here, and he does this ... yeah," Stallings said. "That definitely adds to it."

Keller downplayed that angle.

"I'd have pitched the same way no matter what," he'd say. "But sure, it's always nice to pick up your teammates. I've heard what they've been going through. Hopefully, this is the first of many more to come."

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