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Zach Thompson flirts with a no-hitter, giving the Pirates rotation a needed boost

Zach Thompson wondered why everyone at PNC Park was applauding after he yielded a two-out single to the Reds’ Brandon Drury in the sixth inning Saturday. Then the Pirates right-hander looked up at the scoreboard.

“I was like, ‘Why are we cheering for someone else getting a hit?’” Thompson said. “And then I saw there was just one (hit) and I was like, ‘Huh.’”

Although Thompson didn’t consummate his flirtation with a no-hitter, his performance provided a much-needed boost to the Pirates’ scuffling starting rotation. He suffocated the Reds for six innings, then turned it over to the bullpen for what ended as a 3-1 victory.

“When our guys go out, we just need them to be efficient, and he was really efficient,” manager Derek Shelton said.

Thompson threw 76 pitches, allowed only Drury’s hit, walked three and struck out three. It marked just the second time in 43 games this season that a Pirates starter earned a win.

For Thompson, who was acquired last winter from the Marlins in the Jacob Stallings trade, it was his first victory as a starting pitcher with his new team after he dropped his first three decisions. (He beat the Tigers on May 4 by throwing one scoreless inning out of the bullpen.)

“The first few games, it was kind of combination of unlucky and some poorly executed pitches,” Thompson said. “Being able to come back and show everyone who I am and how I pitch, that’s really important for me.”

This wasn’t the first time that Thompson danced on the edge of history. On June 20, 2021, he held the Cubs hitless through four innings but was charged with an unearned run when Jason Heyward reached on a fielder’s choice, went to third base on a two-out throwing error and scored on a passed ball. Thompson threw 73 pitches in those four innings and issued three walks. He was replaced by a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth and the Cubs went on to get four hits against the Marlins bullpen. Thompson was stuck with the hard-luck decision in a 2-0 loss.

“That was a fun one,” Thompson said. “But this was fun, too.”

This time, Thompson set the tone early by powering through the first inning on seven pitches — all sinkers and cutters. For the game, he threw 22 cutters and generated nine strikes.

Thompson tends to be more effective when he’s able to rely less on his four-seamer. His fastball has an elite average spin rate of 2,377 rpm, ranking among the top 10 percent in the majors, but he also ranks among the bottom 10 percent in velocity. On Saturday, his fastball sat around 92 mph and topped out once at 93.9 mph.

In his previous start, on May 8, Thompson also faced the Reds. Yet he wasn’t worried about their hitters being too familiar with him.

“We didn’t change our game plan,” Thompson said. “We knew they could have a different approach (this) time, and I was prepared for it. I was able to throw other pitches that I wasn’t able to throw last time, like the curveball.”

Thompson allowed two walks in the third inning but was aided by a double play. In the bottom of the third, Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson left the game after being struck on the facemask by Ke’Bryan Hayes’ foul tip. The injury robbed the Reds of their best hitter, as Stephenson is batting .324 with four home runs.

Drury’s fly out to right field to begin the fourth marked the first time the Reds hit a ball beyond the infield. It was a muggy night, and by the sixth inning, Thomson was sweaty and starting to feel gassed.

Before that May 8 start, Thompson had to be hooked up to an IV drip to help him battle a nasty virus. He gutted through it and still tossed five scoreless innings. There was no pregame IV treatment Saturday, but Thompson didn’t start the game with a full tank.

“I’m still dealing with allergies and whatever’s going on right now,” Thompson said. “It was a lot muggier tonight than I anticipated. My head’s still kind of clogged up with some crud.”

The first two outs in the sixth came on routine grounders. Thompson’s 75th pitch of the game was a 2-0 sinker that Drury lined into right field for a clean single. After a mound visit by pitching coach Oscar Marin, Thompson got the final out on one pitch, a deep fly ball to left by Tommy Pham, and was done for the night.

“When I went to tell him (in the dugout) he was done, I was like, ‘You’re not gonna pass out going up the tunnel and have to get an IV, are you?’” Shelton said, grinning.

Would Thompson have stayed in the game after six innings had the no-hitter still been intact? Shelton’s reply was coy: “You’ll know the next time he goes six scoreless if he goes out for the seventh.”

Then again, just getting to the sixth was a victory of sorts for Thompson, as Shelton has been quick with his hooks after the abbreviated spring training.

“Early on, it was more of a strict pitch limit,” Shelton said. “Now it’s … not that in April it wasn’t matchup-based, but now that (the starters) are stretched out a little bit, it’s still matchup-based. The biggest thing Zach did tonight was be efficient with throwing strikes and give not giving away free passes.”

Through his first four starts, Thompson had a 10.05 ERA and allowed 23 hits and nine walks over 14 1/3 innings, which produced an alarming 2.23 WHIP. In his past three outings, he’s racked up 12 consecutive scoreless innings with a 0.67 WHIP.

“I’m just keeping my head in line,” Thompson explained. “Before, everything was falling off really hard to the left side, so all of my pitches don’t play out very well. Now that I can keep my head in line, my arm path is better, my direction’s better, which means my pitches will play how they’re designed. As long as I keep my head going forward, I’m in good shape.”

Thompson did his job. And, somewhat improbably, the lineup came through as well.

Bryan Reynolds, who’s lugging around a .214 batting average, got what Shelton said was a scheduled day off. That meant the lineup was pieced together with Josh VanMeter (who went into the game batting .185) in the leadoff spot, rookie Jack Suwinski (.208) in center field and rookie Diego Castillo (.229) in right. Backup catcher Andrew Knapp (.143) also started.

That group probably didn’t strike fear in the heart of Reds right-hander Luis Castillo, but it somehow came up with enough runs to win.

In the second inning, Suwinski reached on a fielder’s choice and zipped to third when Rodolfo Castro, who was called up Thursday, bounced a single to right. Castillo, fretting about Castro’s speed, balked on a pickoff throw. Suwinski scored, and Castro went to second.

“The balk doesn’t come into play unless they know Rudy’s a threat to (steal),” Shelton said. “It’s cool to see the young kids provide run-scoring opportunities and runs.”

Castillo’s RBI single made it 2-0. In the fourth, Ryan Vogelbach mashed his team-leading sixth home run, a solo shot that landed among the shrubbery on the battery’s eye. It was Vogelbach’s first hit in 12 career plate appearances against Castillo.

Thompson and the bullpen did the rest.

“Anytime a starter gives you a chance and throws up zeroes the way (Thompson) did against a really good arm, it’s all you can ask for,” Vogelbach said. “Anytime you face an ace like Castillo, you know runs are going to be tough to come by. This game is all about Zach and the way he threw the ball.”

(Photo of Zach Thompson: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)

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