CINCINNATI — If the Pirates are going to achieve their big-picture goal this season — essentially to play a better brand of baseball and start winning games — the recipe they deployed on opening day in Cincinnati is a keeper.
They got on base, which was a focus of the offseason. They were active on the bases. They also manufactured a run at a key time and minimized their margin for error, sprinkling in a couple key plays along the way.
The result was a feel-good, well-played 5-4 victory on Thursday against the Reds at Great American Ball Park, one that became possible when the Pirates slipped in front with a key run without a hit in the eighth inning.
Ji Hwan Bae, a key cog with two hits and a pair of steals, drew a leadoff walk and swiped second. Austin Hedges bunted him to third. Oneil Cruz’s fly ball to left scored the speedy Bae easily.
In a game where the teams combined for 14 walks, including eight by the Reds, the Pirates took advantage at a key time and had solid situational at-bats. Hedges also helped with a strong throw to second to complete an inning-ending double play in the eighth.
Mitch Keller was OK in his first opening day start, walking four and striking out eight, and the Pirates got some excellent relief work in the later innings from Dauri Moreta, Rob Zastryzny, Colin Holderman and David Bednar, who picked up the save.
The big hit came off the bat of Cruz, who went deep in the third inning. But aside from that, the Pirates did an excellent job of showing patience at the play, something they sought to improve over the winter.
Reds starter Hunter Greene was dominant early, striking out seven through three innings and ultimately firing 44 of his 83 pitches at 100 mph or greater. But the third-inning Cruz missile created a 1-1 tie before another Cruz took over in the fourth.
Reds reliever Fernando Cruz.
Greene exited with two on and one out. Fernando Cruz walked Oneil Cruz (no relation) to load the bases before a walk to Bryan Reynolds brought a run home.
Andrew McCutchen drew another walk — his third of the game, tying a Pirates opening day record — to increase Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-1, and Oneil Cruz scampered home on a wild pitch thrown by Cincinnati’s struggling reliever.
The Reds would forge a 4-4 tie against Keller, setting up the Pirates’ run-without-a-hit rally.
ON THE MOUND
The pinpoint control Keller showed in spring training lacked against the Reds, although the Pirates’ opening day starter did have some swing-and-miss stuff.
Only once in his career has Keller had more than the 15 whiffs he racked up against the Reds.
What Keller will likely hate: his four walks issued, especially after handing out just one free pass in five spring starts. The periodic control lapses bit Keller once in the fourth inning and a couple times in the fifth.
Reds third baseman Spencer Steer crushed a sweeper Keller left over the middle of the plate for a 435-foot solo homer in the fourth, cutting the Pirates’ lead at the time to 4-2.
Keller opened the fifth with a walk and allowed a single to designated hitter Jake Fraley before first baseman Jason Vosley hit a mistake pitch to right field for a triple.
It looked like Keller wanted to go up with a fastball. However, his 0-2 offering caught too much of the plate, allowing the Reds to tie the game.
Dauri Moreta took over and walked two more before striking out left fielder Will Benson on a changeup. The former Red was noticeably pumped, too.
AT THE PLATE
The excitement over a possible 30-30 season for Cruz didn’t take long to get off the ground — and his third-inning homer didn’t take long to leave the yard, creating a 1-1 tie.
Cruz worked a full count against Greene and smashed a 101.3 mph fastball the right-hander left up in the zone. It landed halfway up the right-field stands — 425 feet at 111.1 mph.
In the process, Cruz became the first Pirates leadoff hitter to homer on opening day since Nate McLouth (March 31, 2008 vs. Braves). Cruz became the fifth Pirates shortstop to homer on opening day and the first since Jay Bell on April 26, 1995.
After an off-day Friday, Rich Hill will make his Pirates debut on Saturday opposite left-hander Nick Lodolo. Hill, who’s 18 years older than Lodolo, is 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in five appearances (four starts) in his career at Great American Ball Park.