From sweeping the Phillies to being swept by the Braves … ugh.
Now it’s off to Pittsburgh for the Cardinals where — perhaps you’ve heard — there’s a five-game series coming up these next four days. Since the Cards haven’t played the Pirates since the end of April, I asked Brian McElhinny of Raise the Jolly Roger for an update. Here are his five things to know. (I provided him with five things on the Cardinals too, which you can find here.)
1) The Bucs are for real. Obviously the standings will tell you that this is a big series, but if I was a Cardinals fan I’m not sure I would really be taking the Pirates seriously at this point. They’ve been a joke for 20 years and after strong starts the last two years, they collapsed in the second half. Well, I don’t know if these Pirates are one of the top-5 teams in baseball or if they’ll match the Cardinals through the rest of the year, but they’re in a great position to finally complete a winning season … and even if they don’t win the division, they’ve got a huge lead in the wild card and look to be playoff-bound. That said, there are only about 60 games left, and the Pirates have played well against the Cardinals lately … even during last year’s collapse … and they will see each other a lot the rest of the way. Buckle up.
2) The Pirates’ pitching has carried them all year — they’ve allowed the fewest runs in the NL. The rotation has battled injuries (Wandy Rodriguez is still out) but the Pirates have shown great depth and are in the game every night thanks to their starters. Francisco Liriano has been a brilliant addition and seems to be back in his 2010 form. Jeff Locke has come out of nowhere and has been amazing — certainly a bit lucky, but still extremely impressive. A.J. Burnett is doing what he did last year, Gerrit Cole (2011 1st overall pick) has looked good as a rookie and Charlie Morton has been good for a 5th starter. They’ve sustained injuries with great work from no-name guys like Jeanmar Gomez and Brandon Cumpton. No more blowups from the extremely unreliable James McDonald … or worse, Jonathan Sanchez.
3) The bullpen has been even better. Closer Jason Grilli was spectacular and is now out with an injury, but that shouldn’t devastate the Pirates. Mark Melancon has been unbelievable in the setup role and has closing experience, so he’ll handle the 9th inning. To set up, they’ll use a pair of hard throwing lefties in Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, plus some solid righties in Bryan Morris and Vin Mazzaro (who has been reborn in this new bullpen role). There are plenty of promising arms in AAA as well in case there are any more injuries — which is a slight concern since the ‘pen has thrown a ton of innings.
4) The Pirates are strong throughout the diamond on defense and have used an aggressive defensive shift strategy pretty effectively so far this year, which has apparently helped everyone on the mound. Another common thread is new catcher Russell Martin. Cardinal fans know the value of a great defensive catcher thanks to Yadier Molina, and Martin has brought similar defensive value to the Pirates — and it’s even more apparent since they’ve been awful at the catcher spot in recent years. He frames pitches, throws out runners, manages pitchers and has clearly made an enormous difference for the club.
5) The Pirates’ offense has been the team’s main issue this year. Unlike the Cardinals, they can’t hit at all with RISP (last in the league) and aren’t all that good in general. They have a hole in RF that they will look to upgrade at the deadline, which of course will occur right in the middle of this series. They are strong at the top of the order, with Starling Marte (a free-swinging, streaky young outfielder that has been pretty impressive overall) leading off, Andrew McCutchen having another strong year at the three spot, and Pedro Alvarez improving on his 30-homer season last year with 26 this year, leading the NL. After that, though, things get messy with Neil Walker underperforming, Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez struggling at 1B, and rookie Jordy Mercer doing a decent job at short. The offense has potential, but overall it has not performed well this season (near the back of the league in most categories) and can hold the team back when it goes cold.
This is a huge series for the Pirates. Fans and media are touting it as the biggest series in PNC Park history — which I suppose is true, although the Bucs kept games meaningful through mid-to-late August last year. The park will be close to full and fired up for a weeknight series, which is basically unheard of in Pittsburgh. People have been talking about it since the All-Star break. This probably means a lot more to the Pirates than it does to St. Louis. Pirates fans are both excited (this is finally a chance to control their own destiny and gain ground on the Cardinals, since it’s miserable to check the score every night and see that they won … again) and worried (they haven’t played great in recent weeks and just dropped a series to the Marlins). It should be a fun week.