Pittsburgh Pirates take eight-game winning streak to nation’s capital

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While summers can get hot in Pittsburgh, nothing has compared to the scorching stretch the city’s baseball team has been on. Winners of 21 of their last 26 games, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a season-high 12 games over .500 at 39-27 and have rattled off eight straight victories en route to the third-best record in Major League Baseball. On top of that, the Pirates have trimmed the St. Louis Cardinals (43-23) division lead to just four games after being behind by as many as eight games early in the season.

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What has made it all the more enjoyable is how dominant the club looks on the mound. While the Pirates and their pitching has been the topic of discussion all season, it bears repeating that what they are doing is simply ridiculous, if not historic. One look at the rotation (30-12, 2.65 ERA combined) and the results have stunning. With three starters with sub-two ERAs, and a bullpen that has seemed impenetrable since the early weeks of the season, the Pirates are giving up just 3.17 runs per game and lead the entire major leagues in quality starts, with 44 of their 66 games getting that distinction. To put that into context, two out of every three games require little work from the bullpen, keeping their arms fresh.

But to put the Pirates on this blistering pace, the bats needed to awake as well, and awake they did. The Bucs have the fourth highest batting average in the month of June at .277, led by the dynamic trio that is Andrew McCutchen (.350), Josh Harrison (.344), and Starling Marte (.344). The three have combined to go 64 for 185 with 84 total bases and eight stolen bases in 16 games played this month. Pair their red-hot hitting with the lights out pitching the Pirates have received from top to bottom, and you have a recipe for the hottest team in all of baseball.

Their next challenge is the Washington Nationals (34-33), an underachieving but dangerous club that has battled injuries and pressure to live up to World Series expectations the past few seasons. The Nationals enter the weekend series having won just four out of their past ten games, and have gone 4-16 in their last 20 after starting the season 28-19. Washington is fresh off of losing three of four to the Tampa Bay Rays, and currently trails the resurgent New York Mets by just 1.5 games in the NL East despite the team’s early season hardships.

One look at the rotation (30-12, 2.65 ERA combined) and the results have stunning. With three starters with sub-2 ERA’s, and a bullpen that has seemed impenetrable since the early weeks of the season, the Pirates are giving up just 3.17 runs per game and lead the entire major leagues in quality starts, with 44 of their 66 games getting that distinction.

The Nationals rival the Pirates in the reputation of their pitching staff, though the results have not been as spectacular. Max Scherzer (7-5, 1.93 ERA) has lived up to the hype of his signing in the offseason, but none of the other starters for the team have an ERA under 3.00. Jordan Zimmerman (5-5, 3.75 ERA) has recorded 11 quality starts in his 14 outings, however.

The Nationals may be without the services of triple-crown threat Bryce Harper (.344, 22 HR, 53 RBI) for part or all of the series who fuels the second-highest scoring lineup in the National League. Even without him, the Nationals still have the talents of Yunel Escobar (.331) and Denard Span (.307), both of whom have thrived this season.

With the Nationals offense meeting the Pirates pitching, this matchup of potential playoff contenders looks to be an enticing watch for the weekend. Let us now look at the forthcoming pitching matchups in the series.

Friday, 6/19, 7:05 PM – RHP A.J. Burnett (6-2, 1.89 ERA) vs. RHP Joe Ross (1-1, 3.46 ERA)

Saturday, 6/20, 4:05 PM – LHP Francisco Liriano (4-5, 2.94 ERA) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (7-5, 1.93 ERA)

Sunday, 6/21, 1:35 PM – RHP Charlie Morton (5-0, 1.62 ERA) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (4-4, 4.82 ERA)

Pitching Matchup Analysis

Initial analysis shows mismatches in favor of the Bucs in the first and last games of the series, though the second game is the one to really focus on. Francisco Liriano comes into Saturday night’s contest carrying a 3-1 record and 1.29 ERA in his last five starts. He’ll have to keep that kind of success up against one of the premier arms in the majors in Max Scherzer, who rebounded off of two starts in which he yielded four earned runs per start with an absolute gem against the lowly Milwaukee Brewers. In that contest, Scherzer pitched a complete game shutout, allowing just two base runners and striking out 16.

Now let’s take a look at how the lineup of the Pirates has done in previous matchups against Scherzer and the other expected starters in the upcoming series.

RHP Joe Ross

Joe Ross has just two career starts under his belt, and has yet to face the Pittsburgh Pirates.

RHP Max Scherzer 

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen15144101317.286.333.571.905
Jose Tabata982000003.250.333.250.583
Pedro Alvarez870000015.000.125.000.125
Josh Harrison880000004.000.000.000.000
Neil Walker861001213.167.250.667.917
Francisco Cervelli771000001.143.143.143.286
Corey Hart660000001.000.000.000.000
Chris Stewart661000002.167.167.167.333
Gregory Polanco440000002.000.000.000.000
Starling Marte331100001.333.333.6671.000
Jordy Mercer220000001.000.000.000.000
Total7671102025330.141.184.254.438

Scherzer, to the surprise of no one, has done a bang up job against the Bucs, limiting them to a combined sub-.200 average. There’s a pretty high chance that this will be one of those nights that the Pirates struggle to put anything together offensively.

Gio Gonzalez

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen12102000021.200.333.200.533
Starling Marte1093101211.333.400.7781.178
Josh Harrison995002501.556.5561.2221.778
Pedro Alvarez660000004.000.000.000.000
Jordy Mercer653200010.600.6671.0001.667
Sean Rodriguez662100303.333.333.500.833
Jose Tabata650000010.000.167.000.167
Corey Hart541000000.250.400.250.650
A.J. Burnett330000102.000.000.000.000
Gregory Polanco330000001.000.000.000.000
Neil Walker330000001.000.000.000.000
Francisco Cervelli220000000.000.000.000.000
Total75691640311517.232.293.420.714

Gonzalez has also done a stellar job in keeping the bats quiet when facing the Pirates. Aside from Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison (combined 8-15, two HRs, two 2Bs, five RBIs), the Pirates have little success to show against the veteran.

Series Prediction

Life is pretty much perfect for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans right now. While this type of play is incredible, it’s not exactly sustainable at this level. Washington has struggled, but not nearly as much as the Brewers, Phillies, and White Sox, who make up the Pirates’ opponents during their current eight-game winning streak. Those teams are a combined 51 games under .500, and the Nationals are one series, maybe even one game away from turning things around and justifying the intense hype around the club heading into the season. Watch for the Pirates offense to come up a bit short, resulting in a series loss, and the end of an incredible nine days.

Prediction: Pirates lose two of three, head home at 40-29

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates pitching? It's magic.

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