Kuhl struggled with both in the second inning, when he hit the first batter he faced and gave up a pair of RBI hits, but got out of a bases-loaded jam and was otherwise solid in his first start since April 18.
The Kansas City Royals scored three runs off Kuhl and added a pair of runs off relievers in both the fifth and eighth on their way to a 7-3 win Monday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Kuhl (0-2) relied heavily on his slider, throwing it on 57% of his pitches (43 of 75) while mixing in his sinker and curveball. Where he touched 97 on his fastball and showed good break on his slider, his command wasn’t as precise.
“I thought as the game went on, he got better,” Shelton said. “I thought the slider was good. That was a really encouraging sign for him, and then he got out of a big jam. Very composed, got out of the bases loaded jam. Just too many pitches.”
The Pirates (20-33) optioned reliever Nick Mears to Triple-A Indianapolis to make room on the roster for Kuhl, who was activated after a rehabilitation assignment. The impetus was to recover from a sore pitching shoulder while working on reducing his number of walks. While Kuhl allowed three runs on six hits while striking out five in four innings he didn’t give up any walks but did hit a batter.
“It’s been something that’s plagued me,” said Kuhl, who had more walks (16) than strikeouts (14) in his first four starts. “It’s just fastball command. I feel like it was a lot better in my two rehab outings. I hit a guy on my two-seam that kinda ran in on me. Eliminate one pitch right there; that’s a free guy on the basepaths.”
The Pirates gave Kuhl a 1-0 lead in the first inning, when Adam Frazier hit a leadoff double, advanced to third on Kevin Newman’s fly ball to the warning track in left field and scored on Bryan Reynolds’ grounder.
The Royals (26-26) tied it when Whit Merrifield answered with a leadoff double, reached third on a wild pitch by Kuhl and scored on a single by Salvador Perez, whose grounder skipped through shortstop and past the diving middle infielders Cole Tucker and Kevin Tucker.
In the second, Kuhl hit leadoff batter Edward Olivares with a pitch, gave up a run-scoring double to Hunter Dozier and an RBI single to Kelvin Gutierrez to fall into a 3-1 deficit. The Royals loaded the bases after Tucker bobbled a grounder to short by Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Benintendi hit a two-out single, but Kuhl got Perez to pop out to shallow right field.
The Pirates cut it to 3-2 when Newman doubled and scored on a Jacob Stallings single to center in the third. Kuhl retired the Royals in order in his final frame, sandwiching a Taylor strikeout between a pair of groundouts. Mike Minor (4-2) got the win for Kansas City after allowing two runs on five hits with seven strikeouts in six innings.
Duane Underwood Jr. replaced Kuhl for the fifth, and gave up a singled to Andrew Benintendi and a two-out, two-run home run to Adalberto Mondesi as the Royals stretched their lead to 5-2.
Reynolds hit a solo homer in the eighth to cut it to 5-3 but the Royals tagged rookie reliever Luis Oviedo with two more runs in the bottom of the inning. Pinch hitter Nicky Lopez hit a leadoff double and scored on a fielder’s choice by Kelvin Gutierrez, who scored on Taylor’s double to center for a 7-3 lead.
Despite the loss, the Pirates were happy to have Kuhl back in a rotation that has lost starters Steven Brault and Trevor Cahill to injury — and even more pleased with how Kuhl pitched.
“I thought his stuff was sharp,” Stallings said. “The slider was good, curveball was pretty good. The fastball command got us a few times. Other than that, he had a couple balls just kind of find holes and sneak through the infield. Overall, I was happy for his first start coming back from injury with how his stuff was, for sure.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .