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Smith’s save the difference maker for Rangers in series win from Pittsburgh

Put to the test in Pittsburgh, closer Will Smith’s gutsy five-out save in the finale gave the Texas Rangers a series win to commence another long road trip.

PITTSBURGH — With a sweep off the table, and with misfortune narrowly avoided at the end, the Texas Rangers took two of three from the Pittsburgh Pirates, an over .500 team, to kick off their road trip that will take them through the remainder of the month of May. 

This series featured a microcosm of the full picture for Texas – complete offensive performances, incredible and gutsy starting pitching, and, unfortunately, bullpen adventures. At the end of the series, however, the Rangers became one of the few teams to have crossed the 30-win mark and are back to three games up on Houston in the American League West.

  • Game 47: Texas 4, Pittsburgh 6 (W: Ortiz, 1-2, L: Sborz, 1-2)
  • Game 48: Texas 6, Pittsburgh 1 (W: Eovaldi, 6-2, L: Hill, 4-4)
  • Game 49: Texas 3, Pittsburgh 2 (W: Perez, 6-1, L: Oviedo 3-4, Sv: Smith, 9)

Nathan Eovaldi is very good

There is no cutesy, clever title for this section because, quite simply, Nathan Eovaldi has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. One day after the bullpen had yet again performed far below expectations, the 33-year-old Texan put the team on his back and rendered the need for relievers unnecessary. Eovaldi, who had a pedestrian month of April as he got acclimated to his new surroundings, tossed his second complete game in five outings.

The full line had Eovaldi scattering six hits throughout the game, giving up one run, striking out five and throwing 104 pitches, 71 for strikes. At no point was Eovaldi ever in an overwhelmingly tough spot. His combination of fastball and splitter got him ahead in the counts, while a cutter expanded the strike zone and induced weak contact from a patient Pirates team. 

Over his past five starts, dating back to his first complete game against the Yankees at the end of April, Eovaldi has averaged 8.1 innings and put up an 0.86 ERA.

Dane Dunning might have filled in the Jacob deGrom spot perfectly, and deGrom might have garnered the most hype coming into the season, but make no mistake, Nathan Eovaldi has been the Texas Rangers’ best pitcher. Eovaldi might very well be the American League’s top hurler nearly a third of the way through the 2023 season.

Aggression leads to the dark side

Going into the series opener, Luis L. Ortiz was a win-less, 24-year-old rookie. He had thrown only 24 innings total as a major leaguer and was sporting a 5.63 heading into the game after most recently lasting just three innings in a start against Detroit.

The Rangers, meanwhile, had just scored 31 runs in a series against Colorado and, as the most prolific offense in baseball, were surely licking their chops at the opportunity to face the rookie. 

On paper, this was a game that Texas should have won handily, especially with Dunning doing his best deGrom impersonation on the mound again. Games aren’t played on paper, however.

Ortiz, Pittsburgh’s No. 8 prospect, took advantage of an incredibly aggressive Rangers’ lineup. He showed veteran-level pitch-mixing, especially utilizing his changeup in key moments to get outs. The Rangers, for their part, were looking to strike hard and strike early; that strategy failed, as Ortiz, who threw 93 pitches over 7 ⅔ innings, averaged just 3.3 pitches per hitter against the Texas offense. 

The Rangers were completely blanked until a Corey Seager sacrifice fly in the sixth and an RBI single from Marcus Semien knocked Ortiz out in the eighth. Texas would score two more on a Josh Jung homer off of closer David Bednar in the ninth, but they were held shockingly quiet by a rookie flashing his talent.

Eventually escaping disaster

Technically, Monday’s bullpen loss wasn’t because of a blown save. The game was tied when Dunning, who fought through 5 ⅔ innings, surrendered the ball to Josh Sborz. Sborz, to his credit, struck out Ji Hwan Bae to strand runners. It was what followed that spelled disaster.

Sborz came back out for another inning of work. Again, to his credit, it started innocently enough. He struck out Austin Hedges and got Andrew McCutchen to fly out. A single and a walk later was troublesome, but Sborz was left in to try and get the final out. It almost came. On a close attempted outfield assist from Adolis Garcia, Bryan Reynolds was found safe on a Carlos Santana single that broke the tie and knocked Sborz out of the game. 

Joe Barlow replaced Sborz looking to minimize the damage and give Texas a chance to work a comeback. Barlow, who partially held the role of closer for Texas last year, had started the year in Triple-A to work on regaining his velocity. But velocity wasn’t helping as he threw five straight sliders to the first batter he faced and walked him. Barlow’s next three fastballs were all in the low-90s. Barlow’s fastballs last year were mid-90s. But it was a slider again that did him in, as Pirates infielder Tucupita Marcano hit one for a backbreaking two-out grand slam. It was just the fourth homer of Marcano’s career, spanning 106 games.

The Rangers almost encountered another bullpen travesty in the series finale on Wednesday. Texas scored three runs off of starter Johan Oviedo in the first inning and managed absolutely nothing over the next eight innings. Martin Perez, meanwhile, gave up two in the bottom of the second and followed suit with zeroes over the next five innings. 

With Perez at 95 pitches through seven innings, manager Bruce Bochy did something he hadn’t done for a few weeks – he elected to bring in Jose Leclerc in a high leverage situation with nobody on base. 

This season, Leclerc has inherited seven runners and allowed five to score. Leclerc was able to get the first batter he faced, but then surrendered two singles and a walk to load the bases. Sensing that the game was likely to get out of hand, Bochy was forced to turn to the one pitcher he has been able to rely on out of the bullpen: closer Will Smith.

Smith, who had never recorded a five-out save before, was being called on to do so from the unenviable position of needing two outs with the bases loaded while protecting a one-run lead. After inducing a shallow fly out to left, Smith collected a strikeout to end the threat.

Bochy’s faith in the veteran closer to come back out for the final frame was rewarded, as Smith retired the Pirates in order to log his 100th career save. It took Smith 19 pitches but after only throwing twice in the last two weeks, and with a day off between series, Smith should be ready for the weekend tilt in Baltimore.

The question now, though, is if anyone else in the bullpen is going to be ready.

Do you think Nathan Eovaldi will earn a spot on the All-Star roster in 2023? Share your predictions with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.

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