PREVIEW: Pittsburgh Pirates face STL in epic NL Central battle
By Steve Kubitz
The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off maybe the most embarrassing series of the season against the Brewers. The House of Horrors struck again as the Pirates failed to win a game and were swept out of Milwaukee. Simply put, the Pirates stunk it up in the series. There wasn’t much positive to report and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with the first place St. Louis Cardinals looming.
The Cardinals sit at 86-47 and as you know are first place in the National League Central, leading the Pirates by 6.5 games. The Cardinals are the single most annoying team in baseball as it seems they win every important game and win in the most mind numbing ways. Need a big home run? Brandon Moss goes yard off a left handed pitcher because Devil Magic.
The Pirates chances of catching the Cardinals and winning the NL Central are fading and if they don’t want to guarantee another one game playoff, the NEED to win this series in St. Louis, which obviously won’t be an easy task. The Cardinals are the best team in baseball and have been for much of the season. They have a great team with seemingly endless depth. Their offense isn’t anything special, but their pitching is historic. We haven’t seen numbers this good since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. All of the Cardinals qualified starters have an ERA under 3.00 and their bullpen isn’t much worse as only Seth Maness and Randy Choate have an ERA above 3. (Choate is the high man with a 4.01ERA.
Every time the Pirates and Cardinals play, it is the biggest series of the season and usually that’s hyperbole for the fans, but in this case, with the Pirates coming off a terrible series sweep at the hands of the Brewers, this truly is the BIGGEST SERIES OF THE SEASON. The Pirates must win to keep their division hopes alive and somewhat realistic. No pressure or anything, guys.
The Pirates have bounced back any time they have faced adversity this season and they will have to do it again in the home of the best team in the league. To quote Daffy Duck in Space Jam, “it’s gut check time.”
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Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups for the upcoming series against the Cardinals:
Tuesday, 9/1, 8:10 PM- LHP J.A. Happ (3-7, 1.98 ERA) vs. RHP Carlos Martinez (13-6, 2.91 ERA)
Wednesday, 9/2, 8:10 PM- RHP Charlie Morton (8-6, 4.22ERA) vs. LHP Jaime Garcia (7-4, 2.03 ERA)
Thursday, 9/3, 7:20 PM- RHP Gerrit Cole (15-8, 2.64 ERA) vs. RHP John Lackey (11-8, 2.87 ERA)
Analysis of pitching matchup
The Cardinals have the best pitching in the entire league, so pretty much every series they have the advantage and that remains true here. J.A. Happ has pitched very well in his time as a Pirate, so if that continues and the Pirates hit Carlos Martinez, we could see the Pirates open the series with a very important victory.
Charlie Morton is a complete wildcard because he could either be very good or very bad. He has more consistency than Jeff Locke, but not much more. Pirates have also hit Jaime Garcia fairly well, so if the offense can get going a little bit, this game could go the Pirates way, however it really hinges on Ground Chuck. We need him to be electric for the Pirates to have a shot in this ballgame.
The Sunday Night Baseball match-up is the most intriguing for the Pirates as Cole is coming off a disastrous start in Milwaukee and will be looking for a bounce back performance. Like most of the Pirates, Cole has not been very strong against the Cardinals in 2015 as they have slashed .277/.333/.475/.809 against him. This will likely (or hopefully) by the rubber match of the series, so Cole could be pitching in the “biggest game of the season” for the Pirates. He’s been up and down lately, but in a big game, there is no one else I’d rather have on the mound for the Pirates.
Now let’s look at how the Pirates lineup has fared against the expected starters of the Cardinals:
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The Pirates have actually hit Carlos Martinez fairly well, slashing .268/.340/.480/.821.
Pedro Alvarez especially has hit Martinez well. His batting average is low at .213, but he’s hit two home runs and slugged .714 against the Cardinals right hander.
Gregory Polanco has also done remarkably well against Martinez and this could be good timing for Polanco, as he has struggled recently. He’s hit .727/.786/1.091/1.877 with a home run against Martinez. So hopefully these numbers help Polanco break his brief slump and back to doing what he is capable of.
The Pirates have also hit Jaime Garcia fairly well, slashing .266/.304/.500/804 against the lefty.
Mike Morse has absolutely owned Garcia, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get the start in this game as he has hit .385/.467/.769/1.236 with a home run and two doubles.
Andrew McCutchen is another player to watch in this game as he’s hit Garcia fairly well too, albeit in a small sample size of nine at-bats. He’s hit two doubles and walked in eight plate appearances. Cutch is the MVP so it isn’t surprising to see him have good numbers against any pitcher. Cutch needs to be great again as the Pirates have struggled big time recently.
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The Pirates have not done great against John Lackey, especially in the power department. They have hit .263/.326/.356/.682 off the pitcher with only two home runs and five doubles.
Travis Snider has done very good work against Lackey in his career, he has hit .364/.364/.545/.909, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lunchbox Hero get his first start in his second go around with the Pirates in this game.
Francisco Cervelli has also been outstanding against Lackey in a limited sample size. He’s crushed the pitcher to a tune of .500/.556/.875/1.431 in eight plate appearances. If he continues to hit Lackey, he could be a huge difference in the game.
Hitter to avoid- Jhonny Peralta
The Cardinals have Devil Magic and no player has been a bigger Pirate Killer this season than Jhonny Peralta. The Pirates MUST avoid pitching to him with men on base as he’s destroyed Pirates’ pitching. He’s hit .339/.412/.486/.898 with six home runs and 13 RBI. It seems like every game against the Pirates, when the Cardinals need a big hit, it’s been Peralta delivering.
He’s hit Happ, Morton and Cole very well this season. He’s slashed a combined .409/.477/.448/.948 against the three Pirates starters in the series. The key to this series might the Bucs controlling Jhonny Peralta and pitching to him with the bases empty whenever possible.
Miller Park will always be the House of Horrors, but Busch Stadium hasn’t exactly been a haven for the Pirates, especially in 2014 and 2015 as the Pirates have gone 3-13 in St. Louis. While nothing can be decided in this series, this feels like if the Pirates lose the series or get swept, their division title chances go from slim to none. So, this is a very, very important series for the Bucs as they must win to keep any hopes at avoiding a one-game playoff alive.
I am forever an optimist so looking at the pitching match-ups, I actually think the Pirates may have a slight advantage in this series. Other than Lackey, they have hit the Cardinals pitchers well, especially Pedro Alvarez and Francisco Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen has also done well against the Cardinals’ pitchers in the series, so the MVP must play like one for the Pirates to keep their dreams of an automatic berth into the NLDS alive. No game is must win until you are eliminated if you lose, but this series is about as close as it gets in terms of divisional standings. Simply put, the Pirates must win.
Final Predicition: Pirates win two of three to go to 81-54