Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates off to face Colorado Rockies
The playoffs are in sight for the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals four games ahead and the Chicago Cubs two behind, the NL Central is prepared to send three very dangerous clubs to the postseason. Being that the magic number for the Pirates (89-60) is three, a series sweep in Colorado could mark not only a second 90 win season in three years, but a berth in the playoffs for the third straight year. Clint Hurdle has seen his club go 5-7 in Colorado since taking over as manager of the Pirates.
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The Pirates were just about back to full health when they lost rookie sensation and infielder Jung Ho Kang. Kang was putting together an impressive rookie campaign (.287 avr., 15 HR, 58 RBI) but suffered a season-ending MCL tear in his knee. All things considered, this Pirates club has stayed relatively healthy, and has managed to plug in replacements on what has proven to be a deep team during times when players went down.
The Pirates will try to counter the loss of Kang’s proficiency at the plate with utility man Sean Rodriguez and second baseman Neil Walker. Both have produced well in the month of September, with Rodriguez (.333 avr.) and Walker (.321 avr.) getting on base frequently. First baseman Pedro Alvarez has also continued to have a strong second half well into September, where he has a .262 average and four home runs in 18 games.
The only real issue is that Jeff Locke has shown relatively no signs of improvement, continuing the disappointing season that the former all-star is producing. While Batman has come back in stride (Burnett) Robin has flopped in 2015.
What is concerning is that the undisputed leader of this team, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, has batted just .258 this month. Cutch has been nothing but solid since having the worst slump of his career to start the season, but with the pennant race heating up, the Pirates cannot afford to see him slump again. Making matters worse, catcher Francisco Cervelli has seen his production drop to a .240 average on the month. Maybe the most frustrating is that up and coming right fielder Gregory Polanco has dipped to a .195 average in September. Again, as these three critical hitters for the Bucs go, so will the team as a whole.
The Colorado Rockies (63-86) are ahead of only three teams for the worst record in baseball, though they can put runs up in a hurry. Ranking seventh in Major League Baseball in runs (665) and team batting average (.264) the Rockies are never out of a game when they have outs to play with. Their Achilles heel as a club is their inability to get other teams out, as they rank dead last in ERA (5.00), quality starts (30), and strikeouts (1018). Opponents hit .281 against the Rockies, marking a golden opportunity for McCutchen, Cervelli, and Polanco to get back in the swing of things headed towards October and the playoffs.
The Rockies are lead offensively by second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who owns a .307 average, but is only 2-10 against the Pirates this year. Third baseman Nolan Arenado has also been a huge bright spot for the team, and ranks with the league’s elite. His .286 average is nice, but his 114 RBIs are second in all of baseball, while his 39 home runs rank fourth. He has also been stymied by the pitching of the Pirates, though, going just 2-11 with one run scored and one batted in.
Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups for the upcoming series with the Rockies:
Monday, 9/21, 8:40 PM- RHP A.J. Burnett (9-5, 3.15 ERA) vs. RHP Jon Grey (0-1, 5.00 ERA)
Tuesday, 9/22, 8:40 PM- LHP J.A. Happ (9-8, 3.84 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Rusin (5-8, 5.11 ERA)
Wednesday, 9/23, 8:40 PM- RHP Charlie Morton (9-8, 4.26 ERA) vs. LHP Jorge De La Rosa (9-7, 4.17 ERA)
Thursday, 9/24, 3:40 PM- LHP Jeff Locke (8-11, 4.48 ERA) vs. RHP Chad Bettis (8-5, 4.46 ERA)
Analysis of pitching matchup
Simply looking at the numbers, the Pirates have a clear-cut edge on the mound. None of the starters for the Rockies have an ERA under 4.00, and only Bettis and De La Rosa have winning records. The Pirates have A.J. Burnett back, who hasn’t looked too bad coming off of injury, though the Pirates have lost his last four starts. J.A. Happ has continued to pitch incredibly well since being acquired from Seattle. His record in the black and gold is a solid 5-2, and he owns an impressive 1.96 ERA in his time in Pittsburgh. The only real issue is that Jeff Locke has shown relatively no signs of improvement, continuing the disappointing season that the former all-star is producing. While Batman has come back in stride (Burnett) Robin has flopped in 2015.
Now let’s look at how the lineup of the Pirates has fared against the expected starting pitching of the Rockies:
A rookie, Grey has faced the Pirates once in his inaugural season in the bigs, going 4 1/3 innings and surrendering three runs on seven hits in what amounted to a 5-3 loss to the Pirates. In that contest, Polanco went 3-5 with two runs scored and an RBI , while Cutch went 2-3 and also reached on a walk. Grey is still looking for his first career victory in what will be his ninth appearance. The Rockies are 1-7 in the games Grey has pitched, with Grey going for more than six innings only once.
Rusin has also faced the Pirates once this season. While he fared better than Grey, the Pirates still ended up 4-3 winners. Rusin gave up three of the four runs in the six innings of work he provided, including a home run by infielder Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has gone 4-12 and has six RBIs against him, while Pedro Alvarez has also done well, going 4-11 with a double. Utility man Josh Harrison and McCutchen both had multiple hits in the game. Rusin is 1-1 with a 6.00 ERA in September this season.
De La Rosa
De La Rosa has allowed Pirate hitters to bat just under .300 against him, with three regulars for the Bucs having averages over that line with at least 10+ at bats. The Pirates have racked up 32 hits against the veteran. Ramirez hits De La Rosa well, meaning that facing him and Rusin may lead to a bit of momentum going forward towards the postseason.
Bettis has rebounded from a summer to forget. In July, his ERA was close to 9.00, and his August wasn’t much better. September has been better to him, as he’s gone 2-1 with a 2.76 ERA. Against the Pirates, he’s been lit up. Though no Pirate player has more than five plate appearances against him, they all have collected hits. Collectively, the Bucs have gone 9-21 against Bettis, meaning he has a lot of work to do if he doesn’t want his ERA to start looking like it did over the summer.
Hitter to avoid- DJ LeMahieu
LeMahieu hasn’t done well against the Pirates, but he’s putting together an impressive season. His .327 record at home shows how dangerous he is at Coors Field. He hasn’t hit well in September, yet his average on the month is .288. While he doesn’t have power, he has the ability to get on base frequently, setting up the plate for his power hitting teammates Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez.
The Pirates have an opportunity here against a poor-playing team to keep pressure on the Cardinals and keep the Cubs at bay. After taking two of three from the Dodgers, the team hopefully is starting to pick it up right when it needs to, with critical series upcoming against both the aforementioned Cards and Cubs. Look for the Bucs to take this one, but expect a fight from a team that can put the bat to the ball.
Final Prediction- Pirates take three of four, head into Chicago at 92-61