Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates turn attention to Chicago Cubs
The Pittsburgh Pirates (93-60) have clinched a birth in the playoffs for the third straight season. Just let that sink in, even for a moment. Five years ago, most of you guys reading this may had, probably had doubted that this kind of day would come. This team went from the punch line to packing a punch that’s good for second in all of baseball.
It is true, for the first time in a long time Pittsburgh has a baseball team worthy of being dubbed a favorite to win Major League Baseball’s top prize. The Pirates are coming off of one of their best series victories of the season, a four game sweep of the hapless Colorado Rockies. But what made that sweep so memorable, aside from the fact that it kept them within striking distance of the divsion-leading St. Louis Cardinals and clinched the Bucs a playoff spot, is that they won in a variety of ways.
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While the fist two games saw the Pirates dominate and outscore the Rockies by a count of 15-6, the next two nights provided more resistance. With a 7-2 lead after four innings, the Pirates allowed four runs and gave life to a bad team. Their response was a six run ninth inning to put the team away for good, 13-7. The next day featured a comeback victory from an unlikely source. With the Bucs behind 4-2 late, it was first baseman Pedro Alvarez who blasted a three run home run to put the club up for good, 5-4.
People may say the Cubs are too young to win, but what if they don’t know any better than to just go out and win? Joe Maddon will have his club ready to go.
The resiliency and tenacious attitude this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates have shown gives a city a lot of hope come October, and with good reason. They’ve won their last six, averaging 6.67 runs per game over the short streak. The team has responded to their latest loss due to injury in infielder Jung Ho Kang, and utility man Josh Harrison, shortstop Jordy Mercer, and starting pitcher A.J. Burnett all seem to be getting back into their groove after stints on the disabled list. Harrison is hitting .323 over September, Mercer is 12 for his last 27 (.444), and Burnett is 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA.
The only issue is that their next series comes against an equally as hot and dangerous team in the Chicago Cubs (89-63) winners of seven of their last 10, and still just 3.5 games behind the Pirates for home-field advantage in the National League wildcard game, a one game win-or-go-home scenario. This is a very likely scenario, and one the Pirates should be weary of: the Cubs have gotten the best of the Bucs, going 10-6 in the series thus far between two of the top three teams in baseball.
The “lovable losers” are preparing for their first trip to the postseason since 2008 after being ahead of schedule in their development from a team that went 66-96 just two years ago and 61-101 three years ago. Behind a change of scenery that brought a new manager in Joe Maddon and President of Baseball Operations in Theo Epstein, the organization is again poised to make a deep playoff push.
That first push comes to shove this week, as there is bound to be a playoff-type atmosphere at Wrigley this weekend.
Now let’s look at the anticipated pitching matchups for the upcoming series:
Friday, 9/27, 2:20 p.m.- RHP Gerrit Cole (17-8, 2.64 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (10-11, 3.46 ERA)
Saturday, 9/28, 1:05 p.m.- LHP Francisco Liriano (11-7, 3.41 ERA) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (9-6, 3.79 ERA)
Sunday, 9/29, 8:00 p.m.- RHP A.J. Burnett (9-5, 3.15 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Arrieta (20-6, 1.88 ERA)
Analysis of pitching matchups
As the Pirates usually do, they have the on-paper advantage. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have packed a potent one-two punch for the Bucs, while A.J. Burnett has surpassed most expectations in his grand finale season at age 37. But Burnett will have his hands full against Cy Young favorite Jake Arrieta, a 20 game winner who has gotten better with every start.
In the last series these teams played, Lester came away with a victory, and the Cubs pitching staff as a whole kept the Pirates to a quiet 11 runs in three games. The Bucs have to figure this staff out quickly with that wildcard game looming.
Now let’s look at how the lineup of the Pirates has fared against the expected starting pitching of the Cubs
Lester has been a thorn in the side of the Pirates, allowing just two earned runs in 16 innings of work this season. His last start against the Pirates saw him go the distance, allowing just six base runners and one run in a 2-1 victory for the Cubs. Infielder Aramis Ramirez (5-11) and left fielder Starling Marte (3-7) have fared well against Lester.
Recently-acquired outfielder Travis Snider may be the key here: with a 5-11 past against Hammel, including two home runs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Snyder in the lineup against Hammel, who exited after just 3 1/2 innings last time out against the Bucs after surrendering four runs in a game the Pirates won, 5-4.
Arrieta has put the clamp down on the Pirates, who hit just .187 against him as a team. Just six of the 28 hits he has allowed have gone for extra bases against one of the quicker teams in the league. Only MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and Marte have had moderate success against Arrieta. This is the last chance for the Pirates to figure out the pitcher they will likely see in the NL wildcard game in about two weeks.
Hitter to avoid- Anthony Rizzo
Though Rizzo has slumped a tad after a huge first half the season, batting just .261 after the all-star break as opposed to .298 before, he’s mashed the ball when facing the Pirates. With a .400 average (24-60) five doubles, and three home runs, Rizzo has been a one man wrecking crew. He’s taken Liriano and Burnett deep a combined three times, and will face them both this weekend, as well as Cole, who he is 5-14 against with two walks drawn. Rizzo is a tough out and a very talented hitter. He’s been solid at home all season and will have a huge crowd to back him with the Cubs closing their sights in on taking home-field advantage from the Pirates. With Rizzo and Arrieta, coupled with the rookie phenom Kris Bryant, they just might.
With so much on the line, this series shapes up to be a dandy. Throw in that the finale is on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, and you have a recipe for playoff-like baseball. People may say the Cubs are too young to win, but what if they don’t know any better than to just go out and win? Joe Maddon will have his club ready to go. With playoffs clinched, the Pirates avoided a letdown against the Rockies. Can they keep the coals hot in the furnace as the weather turns cold with fall?
Final Prediction- Cubs take two of three from Pittsburgh Pirates, who fall to 94-62