Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates return home to face Cubs

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With an eventful weekend series against the Reds that saw everything from a ten run loss to a benches clearing brawl now in the books as a 2-2 split, the 61-43 Pittsburgh Pirates now turn their attention to the team right behind them in the National League Central in the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs (57-47) enter Pittsburgh fresh off of a four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers, and have won six of their last seven overall. They trail the division leading St. Louis Cardinals (67-38) by 9.5 games, the NL Wild Card-leading Pirates by four games, and are squarely tied with the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card berth.  They’ve gone 6-4 against the Pirates this year, and are looking to climb to, in the best case scenario, one game of the leading wild card position. However, they may be without the services of rookie third baseman Kris Bryant, who slid head-first into second base before being tagged in the head/neck area.

The Pirates, winners of seven of their last 10, trail the St. Louis Cardinals by 5.5 games with just 58 games left to go. They have to at least keep pace with the Red Birds if they want their six remaining head-to-head matchups to be meaningful towards a shot at the NL Central crown. If not, they’ll be spent trying to stave off the likes of the Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Mets, and Nationals, all of whom may end up being the team the Bucs face if they retain and remain in their current position.

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Rookie third baseman Jung Ho Kang has been on fire as of late, going 9-22 (.409 average) in the past week, with three doubles and three home runs. Right fielder Gregory Polanco has also kept up the hot hitting he’s been having since the all-star break, batting 7-23 over the past week and scoring four runs.

Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups for the upcoming series with the Cubs:

Monday, 8/3, 7:00 PM – LHP Francisco Liriano (7-6, 2.92 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (6-8, 3.26 ERA)

Tuesday, 8/4, 7:05 PM – LHP J.A. Happ (4-6, 4.64 ERA) vs.  RHP Jake Arrieta (11-6, 2.62 ERA)

Wednesday, 8/5, 7:05 PM – LHP Jeff Locke (6-6, 4.21 ERA) vs. RHP Dan Haren (7-7, 3.42 ERA)

For maybe the first time all season, the Pirates go into a series without the advantage in starting pitching matchups. I’d dare even to say that the Cubs have a clear advantage in this series. Lester has been solid, Arrieta was a snubbed all-star to many, and Haren was a great pickup at the deadline. Lester has been hot in July, going 2-2 with a 1.66 ERA. In the Bucs’ defense, though, Francisco Liriano has also been on a tear lately. The veteran has gone 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his last five starts, all of which the Pirates have won. The Pirates will also be unveiling one of their trade deadline pieces during the series, as J.A. Happ makes his first appearance wearing the black and gold. This series features four of the six starters, including all three Pirates, being left-handed.

Here’s how the Pirates’ lineup has performed against the expected starters for the Cubs:

Jon Llester 

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Sean Rodriguez433693026413.250.349.500.849
Chris Stewart1273001221.429.545.8571.403
Francisco Cervelli1092000211.222.300.222.522
Andrew McCutchen760000003.000.143.000.143
Aramis Ramirez773100101.429.429.5711.000
Neil Walker772000002.286.286.286.571
Joe Blanton440000001.000.000.000.000
Jung Ho Kang332000000.667.667.6671.333
Starling Marte332100000.667.6671.0001.667
Total98832450311722.289.365.458.822

The only Pirate that has really seen extended action against Lester is Sean Rodriguez, who has fared pretty average against him, with two home runs in 43 plate appearances. Jung Ho Kang took advantage of Lester the only time the two met, with Kang going 2-3 in the game.

Jake Aarrieta 

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen18177200113.412.444.529.974
Neil Walker18182100105.111.111.167.278
Pedro Alvarez14132001112.154.214.385.599
Aramis Ramirez12102000011.200.333.200.533
Starling Marte982000002.250.333.250.583
Francisco Cervelli661000103.167.167.167.333
Jung Ho Kang661000001.167.167.167.333
Gregory Polanco661000003.167.167.167.333
Total9287183014320.207.250.276.526

Arrieta has really shut down the Pirates when facing them. The only name that has rattled him is the one that is cheered for the loudest at PNC Park in superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen. With seven hits in just 17 at-bats, Cutch has performed beyond admirably against Arrieta.

Dan Hharen

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPSSHSFIBBHBPGDPmissG
Andrew McCutchen16154102413.267.313.7331.04600000
Aramis Ramirez13123100112.250.308.333.64100000
Travis Ishikawa11101100017.100.182.200.38200000
Pedro Alvarez661001102.167.167.667.83300000
Neil Walker651000013.200.333.200.53300000
Starling Marte541000000.250.400.250.65000010
Sean Rodriguez430000002.000.000.000.00010000
Gregory Polanco331000001.333.333.333.66700000
Total7366133036424.197.254.379.63220010

Haren has been all over major league baseball, pitching for now eight different teams since 2003. With six of those teams being in the NL, he’s had plenty of performances against the Pirates, and has limited the Bucs in their appearances against him. The Pirates have just a .254 OBP against Haren and have struck out 24 of the 73 times they’ve been up to the plate. Again, the bright spot is Andrew McCutchen, who has had three of his four hits off of Haren go for extra bases, including a home run.

Hitter to avoid – Anthony Rrizzo

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Francisco Liriano23204001327.200.304.350.654
Jeff Locke21186202333.333.429.7781.206
Charlie Morton21184200223.222.333.333.667
Gerrit Cole14115100123.455.571.5451.117
Tony Watson14133000114.231.286.231.516
Mark Melancon11103000002.300.364.300.664
Jared Hughes973001520.429.556.8571.413
Joe Blanton663001201.500.5001.0001.500
Arquimedes Caminero310000111.000.333.000.333
J.A. Happ331001201.333.3331.3331.667
Total12510732506201325.299.392.514.906

Against the upcoming starters for the Pirates, Anthony Rizzo is 11-41 (.268) which may not stand out as much as the four home runs and eight RBIs do. Rizzo is lethal, and has owned several Pirates’ pitchers, especially Jeff Locke (6-18, two HRs), Jared Hughes (3-7, one HR), and newly aquired Joe Blanton (3-6, one HR). He leads the Cubs in every major offensive category, as he’s hitting .286 with 20 home runs and 61 RBIs.

Series Prediction

This isn’t the same Cubs club that the Pirates have beat up on the past few years. This team not only rebuilt – it reloaded. It’s ahead of schedule and made some nice moves to challenge here late in the season. The Pirates have struggled against the division but have been stellar at home. With the loss of A.J. Burnett on top of the already injury-ridden lineup, I like the Cubs to win this series, even at PNC Park.

Final Prediction: Pittsburgh Pirates lose series 2-1, move to 62-45

Next: Will Jordy Mercer ever be the starting shortstop in Pittsburgh again?

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