PITTSBURGH — When the Pirates lost many of their veteran clubhouse leaders — like Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams — questions were raised as to who would fill the void on a young team.
Difo hasn’t had a dedicated starting position in his seven-year Major League career. Even when he was seeing more than 100 games a season in 2017-18 with the Nationals, his appearances came spread across seven positions, plus an appearance as designated hitter.
Difo looked comfortable filling in as a pinch-hitter on Sunday, when he lined a two-run homer over the Clemente Wall at PNC Park in the Pirates’ 7-1 win over the Cubs. That’s not necessarily what he’s looking to do in every at-bat, though as he said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez, “If the ball wants to travel further, let it travel further.” But he said it’s a product of staying in focus throughout the game.
“It’s one of the hardest jobs in baseball, and it’s not as easy as it looked yesterday, coming off the bench and hitting a home run,” Difo said. “But it takes a mindset and a physical aspect, as well, just to maintain a preparation that will help you come off the bench and feel a lot more comfortable, and a lot more at peace going in coming off the bench.”
The use of a player like Difo beyond his at-bat result is clear to Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who has stressed the need for versatility among his entire roster.
“As we continue on this journey, we’re going to have to add guys like that,” Shelton said. “We’re going to have to add guys who have been there and done that, because that helps our young players realize the ups and downs of a Major League season.”
When Ke’Bryan Hayes returns from the injured list, which he is eligible to do on Wednesday, Difo will most likely be crowded out of the infield — and perhaps out of the active roster altogether. Difo was on the taxi squad before the Pirates placed Hayes on the injured list.
But the Pirates have gotten Difo some practice reps in the outfield, including in center field, where Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler have yet to find their swing in the early going (4-for-33 combined with 20 strikeouts). If the duo continues to struggle, and Difo continues to hit (4-for-11 with two doubles and a homer entering Monday), he could see a few outfield reps, and he’s ready for that possibility.
“I feel even more confident with all the reps that I’m getting, all the work that we’ve been putting in,” Difo said, “and I really do feel confident I can play not just in center field, but anywhere in the outfield.”
A good challenge
The Pirates won convincingly on Sunday, but in the third inning with Pittsburgh only up by two runs, the team got a huge boost from a successful challenge.
With one out, JT Brubaker induced a ground ball from Anthony Rizzo to first baseman Colin Moran. Moran fired to shortstop Kevin Newman, who tagged the bag ahead of an aggressive slide from Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. Contreras didn’t make a great effort to reach out for the bag while sliding toward Newman, but that early in the game, some staffs may have opted not to challenge.
Not video coordinator Kevin Roach, who signaled to Shelton to call for a review of the play, which scored a run as initially called. The call was overturned, and the Pirates were out of the inning on runner interference.
In fact, it was the second successful challenge of the game for Roach. Fowler was ruled out trying to stretch a single into a double in the second inning, which was a little easier to see being overturned on replay, and the successful challenge allowed Fowler to come around on Brubaker’s two-run single in the next at-bat.
“I really appreciated his effort with it yesterday,” Shelton said of Roach. “It’s one of those things, obviously, I shouldn’t get any credit for. All I’m doing is relying on him and [bench coach Don Kelly]. All I say is, ‘OK, challenge.’
“I get to do the cool headphones thing. Other than that, they’re making the decision, and I think they did a really nice job yesterday.”
Kuhl will square off with the Padres at PNC Park on Tuesday, when he makes his third start of the season. Kuhl was taxed in a long, shaky first inning against the Reds on Wednesday, but he recovered from the five-run frame to strike out five batters over three clean innings. Blake Snell, the 2019 American League Cy Young Award winner, will counter Kuhl. First pitch is slated for 6:35 p.m. ET. The action will be live on MLB.TV.