Mitch Keller struck out seven Tuesday night at PNC Park in the Pirates victory over the Cubs, 9-2, and that seventh punch out was the big one. Not just because it came at the most crucial part of the game, but because it was the perfect example of the strides Keller has made in his rookie season.
Let's set the stage. In the fifth, the Cubs had runners on second and third and one out. At the plate was Willson Contreras, one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. The Pirates were trailing 1-0, so a hit, or even an RBI, could break the game open for the Cubs. Keller needed a strikeout.
He did not get off to a good start, hanging a curveball for a ball. Down 1-0, he went to the slider. Contreras swung and missed for strike one. He went the slider again on the next pitch and once again got a whiff. Now up 1-2, he went to the well one more time, and:
Strike three. He used his slider to get back in the count, get ahead and to put the batter away.
It's safe to say it was in a good spot Tuesday. He threw it 19 times, getting eight whiffs and two called strikes. Both times the Cubs put it in play resulted in fly outs.
The slider is his newest pitch, too. He started throwing it this spring and developed it as the season progressed.
"I feel comfortable using it anytime, especially for put-away," Keller said at his locker after the game. "That's probably one of my biggest ups from the year. I started this year with three pitches and ended this year with four pitches I feel really comfortable with.
"Just being able to use that for a put-away pitch in a high-leverage situation in the big leagues. It's awesome."
During the Pirates road trip to Milwaukee this weekend, I asked Jacob Stallings what the biggest difference was in Keller's slider now compared to when he started throwing it. He answered he was now getting more consistent break with it. In the Contreras at-bat, all three ran out of the strike zone. They looked good enough to swing at but moved too far to get lumber on.
[caption id="attachment_893518" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Courtesy of Baseball Savant.[/caption]
That strikeout was Keller's penultimate batter faced in his rookie season. He finished by getting Ian Happ to pop to left, stranding two runners and keeping the Pirates in the game.
The Pirates have their starters lined up through the final five games of the season, and with a six-man rotation, that means Keller is the first to close the book on his campaign. He is taking away a lot from a season filled with ups and downs, both in terms of performance and transferring from the minor to the majors and vice-versa.
"Just a huge, huge, huge learning experience," Keller said. "Everything about it was a learning experience, from the good outings to the bad ones, to being sent down to being brought back up and everything in between."
And how about that performance to go out on?
"I'll remember this one a little bit more," Keller said. "In the offseason, this is the one we're going to look back at. I wanted to go out with a good one."
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