Preview: Pirates face Cubs in playoff preview

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Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With just under three weeks left in the regular season, the playoff picture is anything but clear in the National League. The Pittsburgh Pirates are right in the thick of it, sitting at 86-56. They’ve trimmed the gap between themselves and the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals down to 2.5 games, but lead their upcoming opponent, the Chicago Cubs, by four games. With pivotal three game sets upcoming against the Cubs and Cards at the end of the month on top of this upcoming series, the Bucs have an opportunity to atone for a woeful record thus far against their divisional foes (28-35). There also lies the opportunity to lose not only a chance at the division in this last month, but home field advantage in the NL Wild Card game, which is looking more and more likely to be an NL Central matchup.

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The offense has carried the torch since the pitching stumbled. While the staff has still been impressive despite injuries, their 3.75 ERA post all-star break is a far cry from the 2.86 ERA they owned in the first half of the season.  The staff owns a 3.97 ERA overall in the first two weeks of September.

The Pirates enter this series winners of seven of their last 10. Utility man Josh Harrison has gotten his swing back after an elongated stint on the disabled list, going 9-21 with four runs scored in the past week. Infielder Jung Ho Kang also had a hot week, batting .333 (9-27) with two home runs and seven RBIs. Since the all-star break, the Pirates have scored the third most runs in the NL (258) while having the second highest batting average (.268)

The offense has carried the torch since the pitching stumbled. While the staff has still been impressive despite injuries, their 3.75 ERA post all-star break is a far cry from the 2.86 ERA they owned in the first half of the season.  The staff owns a 3.97 ERA overall in the first two weeks of September. Luckily, Gerrit Cole is coming off of his strongest start of the season, going seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals, and will face Jason Hammel in the series opener on nine-days rest.

The pitching staff of the Pirates will have a tough task at hand with the lineup of the Cubs, one of the elite hitting teams in Major League Baseball. They are second in runs since the all-star break (270) and lead the NL in home runs (81) along with the New York Mets. They have matched the Pirates hot play, going an identical 7-3 in their last 10 as well. As a team, the Cubs are hitting .270 over the past week, with 13 home runs in the seven games played. Left fielder Chris Coghlan has led the attack, collecting 10 hits, half of them for extra bases, in the previous seven days. Infielders Starlin Castro and Kris Bryant combined to go 17-45 (.378) over that span, with three long balls and 11 RBIs to accompany the solid average. If the Bucs aren’t ready, they’ll get swarmed by a potent Cubs lineup.

Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups in the upcoming series against the Cubs:

Tuesday Game1, 9/14, 1:35 PM- RHP Gerrit Cole (16-8, 2.54 ERA) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.59 ERA)

Tuesday Game2, 9/14, 7:05 PM- LHP J.A. Happ (9-7, 3.87 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (9-10, 3.50 ERA)

Wednesday, 9/15, 7:00 PM- RHP A.J. Burnett (8-5, 3.14 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Arrieta (19-6, 1.99 ERA)

Thursday, 9/16, 12:35 PM- RHP Charlie Morton (9-7, 4.02 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Kendricks (7-6, 4.08 ERA)

Analysis of pitching matchups:

Two teams with not only playoff, but championship aspirations. Both are in the top five in all of baseball. What makes the series even better is how highly contested the pitching matchups are. Arrieta and Cole are elite, Happ has been hot, Lester is a proven veteran, and Morton vs. Kendricks looks about as even on paper as it gets. This series should be one of the most entertaining in what has already been a spectacular season for both clubs and the NL Central overall.

Now let’s look at how the Pirates lineup has fared against the starting pitching of the Cubs:

Hammel

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen27266102315.231.259.500.759
Pedro Alvarez23214012514.190.217.571.789
Travis Ishikawa19192000005.105.105.105.211
Neil Walker18154000021.267.389.267.656
Starling Marte14133000104.231.286.231.516
Josh Harrison13111000115.091.231.091.322
Jordy Mercer13133100002.231.231.308.538
Mike Morse12104201212.400.417.9001.317
Aramis Ramirez12102001111.200.333.500.833
Travis Snider10104002201.400.4001.0001.400
Gregory Polanco993101201.333.333.7781.111
Francisco Cervelli884100101.500.500.6251.125
Chris Stewart653000011.600.667.6001.267
Pedro Florimon2000000201.000
Jung Ho Kang210000101.000.000.000.000
Total19517843619191036.242.292.438.731

Hammel has posted an admirable line against the Pirates for the year: 13.0 innings pitched, 10 hits allowed, and four runs against, three of which were earned. Hammel is looking to win consecutive starts for the first time since June, and will have to do so against young stud Gerrit Cole. Of all the Pirates he will probably face, hot-hitting catcher Francisco Cervelli and right fielder Gregory Polanco both have a good track record against Hammel, going 7-17 (.412) against the righty.

Lester

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Sean Rodriguez433693026413.250.349.500.849
Chris Stewart1273001221.429.545.8571.403
Travis Snider11111001207.091.091.364.455
Francisco Cervelli1092000211.222.300.222.522
Andrew McCutchen760000003.000.143.000.143
Aramis Ramirez773100101.429.429.5711.000
Neil Walker772000002.286.286.286.571
Josh Harrison442000000.500.500.5001.000
Jung Ho Kang332000000.667.667.6671.333
Starling Marte332100000.667.6671.0001.667
Mike Morse330000003.000.000.000.000
Jordy Mercer110000001.000.000.000.000
Total1171022750413733.265.330.431.762

Lester faced the Pirates only once this season, but went seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits, stranding a Bucs team that got on-base often. One of the areas the Pirates have improved this season is batting with runners in scoring position, ranking second in the NL with a .277 average. With runners on in general, the Pirates hit a respectful .274.  If Lester isn’t careful, the Bucs will take advantage of him allowing runners on the base paths for a hungry club that has it’s first divisional crown in sight in over two decades.

Arrieta

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen21188200133.444.524.5561.079
Neil Walker21202100115.100.143.150.293
Pedro Alvarez16152001113.133.188.333.521
Aramis Ramirez15132000011.154.267.154.421
Starling Marte12113000002.273.333.273.606
Josh Harrison991100002.111.111.222.333
Jung Ho Kang991000002.111.111.111.222
Mike Morse992100102.222.222.333.556
Gregory Polanco991000003.111.111.111.222
Francisco Cervelli881000104.125.125.125.250
Travis Snider551000002.200.200.200.400
Travis Ishikawa110000001.000.000.000.000
Total143135245015633.178.224.237.461

Arrieta has been utterly dominant. A Cy Young front-runner, Arrieta is putting together a spectacular and special season. In 21 innings of work against the Pirates, Arrieta has allowed two runs. In the second half of the season, Arrieta is 9-1 with a 0.93 ERA. He’s been one of the big reasons this young and hungry Cubs team has stayed in the thick of things well ahead of schedule or expectations and is a threat to go deep into October.

Kendrick

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Andrew McCutchen18165100121.313.389.375.764
Neil Walker17163000115.188.235.188.423
Aramis Ramirez15146000011.429.467.429.895
Mike Morse1295110221.556.667.8891.556
Pedro Alvarez773002200.429.4291.2861.714
Travis Ishikawa551000001.200.200.200.400
Starling Marte443101201.750.7501.7502.500
Travis Snider430000011.000.250.000.250
Francisco Cervelli331000000.333.333.333.667
Jordy Mercer331100000.333.333.6671.000
Chris Stewart331000000.333.333.333.667
Total10294294138717.309.363.468.831

Kendricks has been lit up by the Pirates this year. While he overall has been a weak link for the Cubs, the Pirates have exposed that time and time again. His ERA against the Bucs this year: a 5.63. As shown above, the team hits over .300 as a whole (.309) against him. First baseman Pedro Alvarez has taken him deep twice and gone 3-7, while left fielder Starling Marte and third baseman Aramis Ramirez have combined to go 9-18, with Marte pounding out a double and home run against Kendricks.

Player to avoid- Kris Bryant 

NamePAABH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
Jeff Locke1192001524.222.364.556.919
Jared Hughes621000120.500.667.5001.167
A.J. Burnett542000111.500.600.5001.100
Arquimedes Caminero542100212.500.600.7501.350
Gerrit Cole532000021.667.800.6671.467
J.A. Happ331000002.333.333.333.667
Francisco Liriano331100200.333.333.6671.000
Mark Melancon320000011.000.333.000.333
Rob Scahill221000000.500.500.5001.000
Tony Watson221000001.500.500.5001.000
Antonio Bastardo110000000.000.000.000.000
Total483613201111013.361.500.5001.000

Bryant has started his career with a bang. The virtual lock for National League Rookie of the Year, Bryant has put up some impressive numbers and been one of the other lynch pins for the rising of the Cubs. With a .271 average, 24 home runs, and 92 RBIs, Bryant has been able to put together a year many rookies simply dream of having. Against the Pirates, Bryant has gone 16-42, scoring 10 runs and collecting 13 RBIs. This kid will be a player that baseball fans will talk about for years to come, and will give the Pirates troubles now and for as long as the Cubs keep him around.

Series Prediction

Two teams enter this series with a lot on the line, to say the least. Both teams feature young, energetic, and exciting rosters that show that their franchises and baseball itself is headed in a positive direction. So who gives? Ultimately, probably neither. But these series are as hard to predict as any, with more than likely a lot of close games to come this week. Still, I see a split upcoming.

Final Prediction: Pirates split series with Cubs to move to 88-58, 3.0 games back of Cardinals.

Next: What a difference a year makes for these Pittsburgh Pirates

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