Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates meet Cardinals with division at stake
Three games separate the St. Louis Cardinals (98-58) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (95-61) in the National League Central. Three games separate either the Cardinals wrapping up a division title and handing the Pirates a wild-card berth, or the two teams being at least one game apart heading into the regular season’s final weeks.
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For Pirates fans, did you ever think five years ago that it could get this good? Knocking on the door for Major League Baseball’s best record and locked in a heated pennant race, this season has already been arguably more memorable than the last 20+ for the black and gold.
The Pirates will also need to be weary of Kolten Wong (.304, 3 HR against Pirates), Jhonny Peralta (.302, 2 HR against Pirates), and Matt Carpenter (.298, 3 HR), who have all been hard to get out for the Pirates.
The Pirates and Cardinals have split the first 16 meetings this year, with the Pirates taking three of four the last time the two teams played at PNC Park. The Pirates are coming off of a series victory at Wrigley against the Cubs that ended somewhat sour, with Jake Arrieta allowing just two base-runners in seven innings in a 4-0 loss for the Pirates that limited them to taking two of three. The Cardinals split a four game series with the Milwaukee Brewers, including a loss in the finale after blowing a 3-1 lead late.
The Pirates will try to continue hitting the ball well against the Cardinals. With a .277 average as a team, contributors like third baseman Aramis Ramirez (5-11, .455), utility man Sean Rodriguez (13-32, .406), and right fielder Gregory Polanco (23-61, .377) have all had great years at the plate against the Cardinals. Inversely, Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, one of the league’s best, has gone just 16-69 (.232) against the Cardinals, though he has three home runs, including a huge walk off in the last series in Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals have struggled through injuries all season, only to see themselves still own the best record in all of baseball. Their latest loss is Carlos Martinez, who had to be shut down for the season after suffering a shoulder strain after a season that saw him post his best numbers, going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA. They may also have to go this series without the services of catcher Yadier Molina, arguably the game’s best backstop, who has missed time with a tear in his thumb.
It will be up to Michael Wacha to try and pick up the extra slack. Wacha, who has won 17 games this year, has gone 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA against the Pirates in three starts. The Pirates will also need to be weary of Kolten Wong (.304, 3 HR against Pirates), Jhonny Peralta (.302, 2 HR against Pirates), and Matt Carpenter (.298, 3 HR), who have all been hard to get out for the Pirates. Carpenter left Saturday’s game against the Brewers with stiffness in his hip, but came back on Sunday to go 2-5 with a double and home run.
Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups for the upcoming series between the Pirates and Cardinals:
Monday, 9/28, 7:oo p.m. – LHP J.A. Happ (10-8, 3.88 ERA) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (12-10, 3.16)
Tuesday, 9/29, 7:05 p.m. – RHP Charlie Morton (9-8, 4.54 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Wacha (17-6, 3.15 ERA)
Wednesday, 9/30, 7:00 p.m. – RHP Gerrit Cole (18-8, 2.60 ERA) vs. LHP Tyler Lyons (2-1, 3.96 ERA)
Even with the loss of Martinez, the Cardinals have some of the most depth in their rotation. Lynn and Wacha will be tough tests to handle the first two nights, with the two winning nearly 30 games combined. Luckily, J.A. Happ, who has pitched well in the second half of this season, had his best outing against the Cardinals, going seven scoreless innings and striking out eight in a 9-3 victory on September fourth. If the Pirates can at least split the first two nights, they’ll have Gerrit Cole on the mound to try and win the series for the Bucs, just five days after allowing just one run over seven innings against the Cubs.
Now let’s look at how the Pirates lineup has fared against the expected starting pitching of the Cardinals:
Lynn has been lit up by the Bucs this year, allowing 13 runs, nine of them earned, in 11 2/3 innings. He’s also struggled greatly coming down the stretch, going 1-2 with a 6.11 ERA in September. Second baseman Neil Walker and first baseman Pedro Alvarez have taken Lynn deep three teams each in their careers against Lynn, while the combination of Walker, left fielder Starling Marte, shortstop Jordy Mercer and utility man Josh Harrison have combined to go 36-99 (.364) against Lynn.
Wacha has done considerably well against the Pirates, with the Cardinals winning all three of his starts on the year when facing the Bucs. Wacha has allowed just four earned runs in those appearances, and will be the trickiest matchup the Pirates face in this series. McCutchen and Polanco have found some success against Wacha, with McCutchen going 7-18 (.389) with three extra base hits, while Polanco has gone 5-9 with a double. Josh Harrison, on the other hand, has been held hit-less in six at bats against Wacha.
Lyons, in his third season in the majors, has seen time both as a starter and bullpen arm, and has faced the Pirates in both roles. In the three games he has faced the Pirates, the Cardinals have lost all three. Josh Harrison has feasted on Lyons, going 5-12 with a double and triple and two RBIs, while Starling Marte has gone 3-8 with a triple and home run. McCutchen has four RBIs off of Lyons, though he is just 3-12 against him.
Hitter to avoid- Jhonny Peralta
With a .319 career average against the Pirates, Peralta has been at his best against the Bucs. Against the upcoming three starters for the Pirates this series, Peralta is 11-35 with two doubles, but has owned the bullpen, specifically Joe Blanton (10-25, 2 doubles and 2 HR), Joakim Soria (8-22), Vance Worley (7-13), and Arquimedes Caminero (3-6).
This is what it has all come down to for these two clubs. Months of hard work and preparation with the hopes of the National League Central crown will be decided in this last week of the regular season, starting with this series here. The Pirates have finally taken that next step of becoming a World Series favorite, but must take down a Cardinals squad that has defied all odds with their injury-ridden roster. While the Bucs are as good as anyone, the Cardinals have yet to be dethroned, and I refuse to say they will until I see it.
Final Prediction- Cardinals win series 2-1, landing Pirates at 96-63 and a wild-card birth for the third straight year.