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The Pittsburgh Pirates are reeling after a hot start. And Paul Skenes isn’t around — yet — to help

 The Associated Press  |    Apr 21st, 2024 7:17pm EDT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Martín Pérez knows what winning baseball looks like.

The veteran left-handed pitcher has the World Series hardware to prove it.

He knows what bad body language looks like too. And at the moment, the Pittsburgh Pirates are displaying far too much of it during a six-game slide that’s tempered some of the optimism that surrounded the club during a promising start.

“We’re putting too much pressure on,” Pérez said after a 6-1 loss to Boston on Sunday dropped Pittsburgh to 11-11. “We’re not getting the results that we’re looking for. We have to come in tomorrow, go out there and enjoy it and try to play better.”

At the moment, it’s a relatively low bar to clear. The Pirates have managed just nine runs during their slide and the series finale against the Red Sox was pockmarked by careless mistakes. Pérez labored through four-plus innings, twice Pittsburgh ran into outs at second base and slumping shortstop Oneil Cruz let a routine pop up glance off his glove, allowing an insurance run to score.

“In certain situations, guys are trying to do a little too much,” Pirates general manager Derek Shelton said. “In certain situations, we just played sloppy.”

A year ago, the Pirates sprinted to a 20-8 start before going into a two-month funk from which they never fully recovered on their way to a fifth straight losing season. They believe the painful lessons learned last spring will help keep them from bottoming out this time around.

Asked what needs to happen to make sure one rough week doesn’t turn into a repeat of 2023, outfielder Bryan Reynolds preached patience.

“Just looking at the calendar and seeing we have 140 more (games),” Reynolds said. “Getting in the cage, working on our swings, doing early defense, and just continuing to go.”

The issue at the moment isn’t the pitching, but the offense. The Pirates won 11 of their first 16 by averaging more than five runs a game. They haven’t scored more than three while getting swept by Boston and the New York Mets.

Cruz, who missed most of last season with a fractured left ankle, is hitting just .209 and his 37 strikeouts lead the majors. Shelton dropped the towering 6-foot-7 Cruz to eighth in the order on Sunday in hopes of helping the talented 25-year-old hit the reset button.

“Getting confidence back is a huge part especially being out for a year, but we’re working hard everyday and battle through some stuff and we’re here to do that everyday to get better,” Cruz said through a translator. “We’ll be fine.”

The starting pitching, thought to be a weakness when the season began, has actually been fine or in the case of rookie Jared Jones, occasionally spectacular.

Yet with Marco Gonzales on the injured list with a left forearm problem and Quinn Priester unimpressive in his 2024 major league debut in a loss on Friday, the drumbeat for the Pirates to call up 2023 top overall pick Paul Skenes figures only to get louder.

The hard-throwing right-hander has been almost unhittable at Triple-A Indianapolis. The 21-year-old Skenes hasn’t allowed a run in 12 2/3 innings and he’s struck out 27 of the 47 batters he’s faced, most of them recorded with a fastball that regularly clocks in at 100 mph.

While Skenes’ arrival is a matter of “when” and not “if,” the Pirates are intent on taking a deliberate approach to make sure Skenes is ready. There is little question that Skenes has the stuff to get out big-league hitters. What he doesn’t have — at the moment anyway — is the kind of endurance he’ll need to be a starter in the majors.

Skenes hasn’t thrown more than 65 pitches in any of his four starts, though that number figures to tick up in the coming weeks. Skenes has not groused about being in Triple-A and pointed out he needs to become more efficient, a sometimes difficult task for a strikeout pitcher.

General manager Ben Cherington pointed out on his radio show Sunday that Skenes is still just in his first full season as a professional and the team is focused on putting Skenes in the “best position” to succeed whenever he arrives in Pittsburgh.

Until then — and the best guess is Skenes will be up by early June at the latest barring a major setback — the Pirates will try to forge ahead with what they have. Early NL Central leader Milwaukee begins a four-game set at PNC Park on Monday night. Jones, just 22 himself, will get the ball with a chance to take another step forward and halt his team’s slide.

Shelton took Jones out just 59 pitches into his previous start against the New York Mets last week. Jones figures to have a slightly longer leash this time around. Having the offense figure things out would certainly help.

“I don’t feel like we’re too far off and I don’t feel like we’re panicking,” outfielder Connor Joe said. “The confidence and belief in ourselves and within each other still stay consistent and true, which is a good sign for us.”


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