PITTSBURGH – That wasn’t how the script was supposed to go.
Staked to a 3-0 lead thanks to three solo homers in the top of the sixth inning and with their ace on the mound against one of the worst offenses in baseball, the post-trade deadline portion of the season was shaping up to begin with a flourish for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Then, things went the same way for the Brewers that the deadline did: unexpected.
The wheels fell apart for Brewers starting pitcher Corbin Burnes and defensive miscues only exacerbated matters as the Pirates rallied in the bottom of the sixth inning to send Milwaukee to a 5-3 loss at PNC Park.
Box score:Pirates 5, Brewers 3
Scoreless through five innings, the Brewers jumped on Pittsburgh starting pitcher Bryse Wilson thrice with solo homers, first from Willy Adames, then from Rowdy Tellez and Kolten Wong.
Burnes battled his command all night, walking a career-high five. Free passes haunted him in the decisive sixth as he put Bligh Madris and Cal Mitchell on consecutively with one out in front of Oneil Cruz.
“It’s not just this outing, it’s been all year,” Burnes said. “We’re constantly searching to find something to keep consistent with and get in that good groove and get that good feeling. We just haven’t done it yet.
“Tonight was really frustrating because we’re trying everything out there. I’m doing everything I can just to throw a strike.”
Cruz, the Pirates’ top prospect, made Burnes pay, strong-arming a changeup out on a line to center field to tie the game. Even though the pitch was out of the zone, Burnes still lamented both the execution and the fact that he felt like he had to go off-speed in that spot.
“They got to the point that they knew I couldn’t throw a cutter for a strike,” Burnes said. “They were out there sitting soft on pretty much everything, whether it was the cutter or the changeup. He swung and missed at a curveball and we tried to go changeup down and away and it was elevated. Big guy with long arms like that, it plays right into his swing when they’re sitting soft.”
Burnes walked the next hitter, Josh VanMeter, marking his first time walking five in a game since August 26, 2017, when he was at Class AA.
That marked the end of Burnes’ day but not the Pirates’ scoring for the inning. VanMeter stole second and scored to take the lead on a single by Tyler Heineman, who advanced all the way to third on a throwing error by Willy Adames. Another defensive miscue cost the Brewers yet again as a passed ball from catcher Victor Caratini allowed Heineman to score with an unearned run off reliever Brad Boxberger.
“It’s a little odd,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s been battling a little bit with command.”
Adding insult to injury was the Milwaukee seventh.
With one out, Christian Yelich singled and moved to third on a booming double off the center field wall by Adames. With the Pirates going to lefty Manny Bañuelos, Counsell lifted Tellez for Mike Brosseau, who has crushed southpaws this year. Bañuelos hit Brosseau with a pitch, loading the bases for Andrew McCutchen, who typically fares well against lefthanders as well.
McCutchen, though, popped out to center, prompting Counsell to bring in Pedro Severino off the bench and lift another hot hitter on the day, a 3-for-3 Kolten Wong, to gain the platoon advantage with Wong having a .375 OPS against lefties this year. Severino struck out swinging.
It’s a move the Brewers will make 10 out of 10 times, but, considering how Tellez and Wong had swung the bats on the day, was there any extra consideration to keeping one or both in?
“It’s different pitchers and that’s the whole point,” Counsell said. “We’ve got these guys here for a reason. Mike got on base and gave us a bases loaded at-bat with McCutchen up which is exactly where we want the game, really. It just didn’t play out.”
It sure didn’t, sending the Brewers to a second straight loss and snapping a seven-game skid for the Pirates.
It was a messy pair of innings that was especially poor-timed considering the events of the previous 36 hours for Milwaukee.
On Monday, they traded away all-star closer Josh Hader and while the pieces they got in return may very well bridge the gap left by the southpaw’s absence, the aftermath of trading a franchise cornerstone was felt not only throughout the fanbase but even within the Brewers clubhouse.
They added another pair of relievers, Matt Bush and Trevor Rosenthal, following the Hader deal but didn’t acquire any help to bolster the offense, not finding a price for a bat that they found to their liking. The Brewers feel confident in their offense which entered Tuesday with the seventh-best OPS in baseball, but the addition of another impact bat or even a complementary piece may have been needed all along — even if it meant digging into their pockets or prospect capital a bit more.
“We looked to improve our position-player grouping,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “We were involved in a number of conversations and we just couldn’t get anything over the line.”
The reality is this: between the Hader trade and the lack of an addition to the offense, the optics of how the Brewers handled the deadline may in fact be worse than how their actually handling of it.
Milwaukee’s front office has earned a level of trust in these matters but emotions will naturally run high when a three-time reliever of the year is traded away without the roster receiving a significant upgrade; both things can be true. And it was even true of Devin Williams, one of the best relievers in baseball, who carefully picked his words when asked his thoughts on the trade.
“You could say that,” Williams said when a reporter asked if these types of situations come with the territory of a tough business. “A lot of things that don’t really make sense. I don’t know. I want to win. That’s the biggest thing to me. I don’t really have much to say about it.”
But that also somewhat elevates expectations, at least externally, on the current group of players to perform, as well as for the front office, which in the grand scheme mostly stood pat with the current roster.
“I don’t really pay attention to that, but I’ll say that I take it like a compliment,” Adames said of the Brewers not bringing in any new players to the offense via trade. “I feel like they trust the guys that are out here and we do, too. We’re trusting ourselves and we have a pretty good team, a pretty good lineup and we can do a lot of damage. We just have to be more focused and try to do our job and try to do our best, and we can be great.”
As the second half rolls on, the Brewers will likely settle in with the roster they have in place.
Their offense to date has certainly been more than serviceable even despite its hills-and-valleys performance at times.
The pitching has yet to quite match its own lofty expectations as a unit but with health trending in the right direction and a litany of proven arms in the group, there is reason for optimism.
On Tuesday, optimism may not have been the prevailing theme. With two months remaining in the regular season and a possible postseason to follow, though, there is ample time for the Brewers to make it be.