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Apr. 29—As Mitch Keller threw pitch after pitch — almost half of them for balls — the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander’s body language was telling: This was going to be a short start and a long night.

A 47-pitch first inning doomed Keller, who got three-ball counts against four of the first five batters he faced. When he wasn’t walking the Kansas City Royals, Keller was giving up extra-base hits.

The Pirates had plenty of mishaps, but another shaky start by Keller was the most troubling among them in a 9-6 loss to the Royals on Wednesday night in a game that lasted nearly four hours before 4,226 at PNC Park.

The loss dropped the Pirates (12-12) back to .500, as they split the two-game series with the Royals (15-8). The Pirates are off Thursday, then host the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-game weekend series.

“I think it was one of those things that we just didn’t execute the final putaway pitch, and they continued to extend at-bats,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “I think obviously you’re frustrated when you’re out there competing. He’s working his butt off between starts and, right now, it’s not translating as much as he would like. So, yeah, I think there’s some frustration because he’s putting in hard work and, right now, he’s not seeing the fruits of it.”

Keller reached 62 pitches after two innings and didn’t make it out of the third. Out of his 83 pitches, Keller threw only 44 strikes and got six swings and misses in giving up four runs on three hits and five walks in 21/3 innings. Keller wasn’t made available for an interview following the game.

It was the shortest start with 80-plus pitches by a Pirates starter since John Van Benschoten gave up seven runs on six hits and four walks while throwing 84 pitches in 21/3 innings in an 8-1 loss at the Philadelphia Phillies on July 27, 2007. They are the only two Pirates pitchers to throw 80 or more pitches in 2 1/3 innings since pitch counts started to be tracked in 1988, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

It was the third time in five starts that Keller (1-3) failed to reach the fourth inning — he went five innings in the other two — and his command continued to be an issue. Keller walked Carlos Santana before giving up a full-count RBI double to the right-center gap to Jorge Soler as the Royals took a 1-0 lead. Andrew Benintendi drew a full-count walk, and Hunter Dozier followed with a two-run triple to make it 3-0.

The Pirates pulled Keller after he walked Dozier to load the bases with one out in the third.

“He’s a bulldog, he’s a competitor. I just think he needs to understand he’s very good,” Pirates first baseman Todd Frazier said. “His command wasn’t there today. Shoot, I was 0 for 14 before I got my first hit. Things happen, but he’s going to be a really good pitcher once he just understands his command’s going to be there. Focus on what he does great, and have all the confidence in the world. That’s what I tell all the hitters when I go out there and play. ‘Listen, have all the confidence in the world. You’re great. You’re here for a reason.’ Getting to know him, I love him like a brother, and he’s going to be just fine. It’s just one of those things where, you saw the first inning, just a lot of pitches.

“From there, you’re working uphill rather than working downhill.”

Where Keller’s control issues are well-documented, the Pirates weren’t prepared for their bullpen to blow up.Sean Poppen made his first relief appearance since April 17 and promptly walked Michael A. Taylor to score Perez and make it 4-0 before getting Nicky Lopez to ground into an inning-ending double play.

The Pirates answered with singles by Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier, and Phillip Evans drew a walk to load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the third. But Royals lefty Mike Minor froze Bryan Reynolds with a fastball on the outside corner for a called third strike to get out of the jam.

The Royals added two more runs off Poppen in the fourth, when they got four consecutive singles. Perez lined one past Wilmer Difo in right field to score Whit Merrifield, and Soler singled to center to drive in Santana for a 6-0 lead.

After Benintendi drew his third consecutive walk, Dozier drilled a grounder to third, where Erik Gonzalez made a spectacular snag and turned a double play to prevent more damage.

Gonzalez then blasted a 453-foot two-run homer to left field. Jacob Stallings followed by hitting a 2-1 pitch to the North Side Notch, where center fielder Taylor caught it only to have the ball pop out of his glove when he crashed into the wall. The back-to-back homers cut the lead to 6-3, but Minor struck out the final three batters.

Evans reached on a throwing error by shortstop Lopez in the fifth, and Reynolds followed with a single to right. Having runners on first and third set the stage for Todd Frazier, who had drawn two walks but smacked a 2-2 fastball to the right-center gap for a two-run double — his first hit as a Pirate.

That cut the Royals’ lead to 6-5, as Kyle Zimmer replaced Minor. Zimmer got Gonzalez to pop out but walked Stallings and Difo to load the bases before Newman flew out to deep center for the final out. The Pirates stranded nine runners.

An error proved costly in the sixth, when second baseman Adam Frazier fielded a Santana grounder and threw the ball off Merrifield. Instead of turning a double play, Chris Stratton had runners on first and second when he gave up back-to-back doubles to Soler and Benintendi as the Royals stretched their lead to 9-5.

In the eighth, Evans singled to right to score Adam Frazier to cut it to 9-6 but the Pirates could get no closer. Even so, Shelton is impressed with how the Pirates kept putting themselves in position to make a comeback.

“We lost, but we continued to come back,” Shelton said. “We had guys on base. Frazier hits the double in the eighth and Evans gets him in. We get another guy on. We’re in situations. I think we’re pushing the throttle on people, and we continue to play hard.”

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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