PITTSBURGH -- Before Trevor Williams took the mound Wednesday night, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called this a "learning year" for the young right-hander. It's not a time to focus on results, particularly the things out of his control, but a time to grow and develop at the game's highest level.
Williams did not begin the season in the Pirates' rotation, but his future may be there. And he continued to learn in a 5-2 loss to the Reds at PNC Park. Williams was charged with two runs while striking out six over 5 1/3 innings, effectively pounding the bottom of the strike zone before running into trouble in the sixth inning.
"He pitched an extremely competitive game," Hurdle said. "It's a very controlled, quality outing."
Some things were out of Williams' control. For instance: The Pirates lost for the seventh time in his last nine starts despite his 3.86 ERA during that stretch. He's allowed more than three runs only once since June 10, yet he is 1-1. But for most of the night, Williams kept a dangerous Reds lineup in check.
He allowed only one hit in his first three innings, recording five of those nine outs on the ground. Williams' ability to induce weak contact -- he has a 49.7 percent ground-ball rate this season -- is perhaps his greatest strength, and it showed up for the first three innings Wednesday night.
"That's his goal. He wants to attack the bottom and work his way up and in when he needs to," catcher Chris Stewart said. "His goal is to stay at the bottom, and if you're down there, you're going to be successful. He's figured that out, and he's done well with it."
Williams and Stewart also took advantage of a wider-than-usual strike zone, particularly away from left-handed hitters and inside against right-handers. That opened up Williams' entire arsenal, particularly his changeup and slider.
"Fastball command leads to everything," Williams said. "You're not going to get swings on your slider, changeup or curveball if you don't have that fastball command there. I think that has been the key to consistency."
And Williams has been as dependable as the Pirates could ask of a back-of-the-rotation rookie starter, especially one who began the season in the bullpen. He has posted a 3.86 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over his last 15 starts, averaging about 5 2/3 innings per outing.
"I just think his mix has been really good. He's shown the ability to throw secondary pitches in offensive counts, which has helped as well," Hurdle said. "He's shown pitchability, man. Whoever it is, he's going out there with a game plan and executing it. He's been very consistent."
There is still room for growth, however, the kind of development that comes with time and experience in the Majors, as Hurdle mentioned before the game. With the Pirates down by one run, Williams entered the sixth having thrown 79 pitches, then served up a leadoff double to Joey Votto.
He got Adam Duvall to fly out, and Votto didn't tag up. Scooter Gennett reached on an infield single, then Eugenio Suarez took a full-count changeup in the dirt to walk and load the bases. With Williams tiring and his pitch count at 95, Hurdle emerged from the dugout and summoned Daniel Hudson, who walked in a run before escaping the inning.
"That last inning kind of lingered on a little bit," Williams said. "The leadoff double's always tough to pitch around. Other than that, I thought we attacked the zone pretty well."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.