CINCINNATI – The Pirates had plenty of anticipation games Thursday before and during their 5-4 Opening Day victory over the Reds.
Patient approaches the plate, squatting tight until Reds right-hander Hunter Green, flexing five relievers, made nine runs and assisted in making runs. The Pirates won the game in the eighth inning when Ji Hwan Bae walked, stole second, sacrificed third and scored on Oneil Cruz’s sacrifice fly.
“You just have to take a step back, take a breath and relax,” said Brian Reynolds, who drew a bases-loaded walk in the fourth. “Focus on what you’re looking for and try not to help too much.”
Before the first game of the day, Reynolds was part of an entirely different kind of waiting game. This did not have a happy ending.
A senior league source said the Pirates and Reynolds have made great progress toward contract extensions the athlete. Reynolds wanted to complete the deal before this game started, but that deadline passed without any decision.
According to published reports, the stumbling block is a “conceptual issue” rather than money. The dispute could be over an opt-out clause or a trade clause—two items hackers typically avoid including in contracts. Nor is it clear how much each side has conceded in terms of financial terms. The Pirates’ initial offer was six years, $80 million, and Reynolds’ solicitation was eight years, $134 million.
Last week, General Manager Ben Chirrington said he would be willing to continue negotiations into the season, as long as it did not become a distraction.
Is the door closed now? After the match, Reynolds and Chirrington declined to comment.
During the match, Reynolds didn’t seem distracted by the lack of a deal. On his first bet, about two minutes into the deadline, he hit a clean single into right field.
“The identity of most good teams is to hit the batters, rely on the bases, and win close games,” said Reynolds. “We did all three today.”
When it comes to opening day starters, the Pirates’ pitchers have done a lot of passing clubbing over the past seven years. The series goes from Francisco Liriano (2014-2016) to Gerrit Cole (2017) to Ivan Nova (2018) to Jameson Tellon (2019) to Joe Musgrove (2020) to Chad Kuhl (2021) to GT Brubaker (2022).
This year, it was Mitch Keeler’s turn. grudge match. The right fielder made his big-league debut at Great American Ball Park four years ago, enduring an embarrassing six runs in the first inning as every ball the Reds fielded found some turf.
The beginning of the first half on Thursday was also difficult. The Reds loaded the bases with nothing on one out, a walk and a bunt in shallow left field. By making a double play, though, Keeler limited the damage by one run.
“A sign of growth,” said manager Derek Shelton. “We’ve seen that kind of role get away from him.”
The Pirates pegged it at 1 in the third. Cruz was down 0-2 when Green was charged with a court clock violation. Green’s next pitch was a chest-high fastball down the middle. Cruz hit it 425 feet and over the right field wall.
“(The violation call) didn’t affect me at all,” Cruz said through a translator. “I kept my mentality going after him. Nothing else.”
Greene’s pitch came in at 101.3 mph—the hardest homer hit by a Pirate in the Statcast era (since 2015)—and Cruz’s bat flew at 111.1 mph.
“We know he (Green) has a good arm and throws a lot of balls with power,” said Shilton. “Cruz just got one in a really good jab.”
And Neil Cruz – Pittsburgh Pirates (1) pic.twitter.com/HhaTTKu3Ht
– MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) March 30, 2023
At 24 years, 177 days old, Cruz is the eighth youngest Pirate to homer on Opening Day. It’s the youngest since Ke’Bryan Hayes (24 years, 63 days) gone in 2021.
At the start of spring training, Cruz said he wanted to combine 30 homers with 30 steals. Is that too difficult for someone with less than 100 big league games under their belt? Not when it comes to Cruz.
“Shoot, one day he might as well do a 40-40,” Hayes said. “That’s the kind of roof he’s got. I’m excited to see a full year of him. He’s not going up against men for the first time this year. He’s going to be up against guys he already knows, so he knows how to attack him. It should be fun to watch.”
MLB introduced the Stadium Clock this year, with the goal of speeding up and shortening games. The Buccaneers and Reds found an antidote, though — lots of walking.
With Bay on third base and none out at fourth, Austin Hedges worked a walk to spark a three-run rally. Hedges did everything he could to disrupt Greene’s rhythm, tempting fate and pitch clock by taking his time getting into the batter’s box. it worked. Green splashed the ball out of the area, and the Buccaneers had corner runners.
“If you call the time and then immediately return to the box, the pitcher can take (the clock) up to one second,” said Hedges. “So I wanted to put him down as long as possible, just in case he wanted to wake me up.”
Such was the case for Green, who collected eight hits but also threw a whopping 83 pitches in 3 1/3 innings. It was another tough outing for him against the Pirates. Last season, Greene and Art Warren didn’t allow a hit more than eight runs at PNC Park, but the Pirates scored a run with a fielder’s choice to steal a 1-0 victory.
Fernando Cruz took over. After three walks and a wild pitch, the Pirates took a 4-1 lead.
The last Pirates player to achieve an Opening Day victory was Liriano in 2016. Keller looked poised to end that slide when he took a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth—until Jason Fosler tied the score with a two-goal, three-run triple that barely eluded the game. The glove of the first entrepreneur, Carlos Santana.
Keeler worked 4 2/3 innings and struck out four runs with six hits, walked four and struck out eight. The Sweeper, who was so wild last season that he canceled it for a while, has troubled him again, so he relied heavily on the cutter and the four-seam fastball.
“I didn’t feel the best there,” Keeler said. “Just one of those days, a day off.”
The Pirates bullpen shut out the Reds over the last four innings. This gave the offense time to get away with the deciding round. Not surprisingly, it came from the combination of Bay (who reached base three times and scored two runs) and Cruz (who had two RBIs).
Some fans may grumble about Shelton’s decision to put Cruise on top multiplication order, but clicked Create Squad on Thursday. With Bae on third with one out and Reynolds in a circle on deck, Reds reliever Kyle Farmer elected to play Cruz. The volleyball won’t need the depth to score Bae fast.
“Sure, I was shortening my swing a little bit,” Cruz said. “I needed to make a connection no matter what I could get across the board.”
Cruz’s swing wasn’t close to the one that launched the homer, but it got the job done. Left winger Stuart Fairchild grabbed the ball two steps in front of the warning track and Bay scored easily.
In reliever Rob Zastrezny retired all four batters he faced to clinch the win. Zastryzny, 31, was a non-roster invitee to spring training, finally making it to the opening roster in his 10th year in pro ball.
“I called my wife when I found out she was screaming,” Zastrizny said. “It feels good to achieve this goal, but I have a lot of others that I need to achieve this year.”
(Top photo: Sam Green/The Enquirer/USA Today)