Pirates – Cardinals Opening Series Recap
The Pittsburgh Pirates kicked off their 2016 season with a series sweep over the hated St. Louis Cardinals. Read on for a recap and some analysis:
Winning Pitcher: Francisco Liriano (1-0)
Losing Pitcher: Adam Wainwright (0-1)
It wasn’t enough for Francisco Liriano to strike out 10 over six innings on Opening Day. With runners on the corners and the game still scoreless in the bottom of the Second inning, Liriano directed a hard ground ball into Right Field to score Gregory Polanco from Third base and give the Pirates a 1-0 lead. John Jaso added to that on the very next pitch by driving in Jordy Mercer from Second base with a Single. Though Liriano did tie his own Pirates Opening Day record for strikeouts, he also walked 5 batters, which contributed to the Cardinals loading the bases in the Fourth and Sixth innings. However, both times, Liriano was able to escape these jams and finished his day without letting any Cardinals complete a full circuit around the bases. The Buccos were able to add insurance runs in the Sixth and Eighth innings, with Francisco Cervelli scoring on a sacrifice fly after hitting a Triple into the North Side Notch and Polanco scoring off a Mercer Double. Clint Hurdle took advantage of the Cardinals having two lefties due up in the Seventh inning by having Tony Watson come in to pitch one inning earlier than usual. Instead Neftali Feliz pitched a scoreless Eighth inning in his Pirates debut. Hurdle elected to send Mark Melancon into the game for the Ninth inning despite it being a non-save situation. Melancon struggled, hitting a batter and allowing two hits and the Cardinals only run of the game. He was able to limit the damage though by inducing Matt Adams to fly out for the final out of the game with runners on Second and Third.
Winning Pitcher: Kyle Lobstein (1-0)
Losing Pitcher: Seth Maness (0-1)
Jon Niese did not receive much help in his first start with his new ball club, as he Pirates and Cardinals played a competitive, if at times sloppy, contest on Tuesday night. The two teams combined for three errors, two of which led directly to runs being scored, on a night when the temperature seemed more appropriate for a game being played at the other stadium on the North Shore. Before any of the errors, Gregory Polanco celebrated his contract extension by opening the scoring with a triple off the Clemente Wall driving in Francisco Cervelli. Polanco scored himself on a Josh Harrison ground out the very next at-bat. The lead didn’t last long as the Cardinals added two runs of their own in the top of the Third. Starling Marte committed the first error, allowing a run to score when he misplayed a Stephen Piscotty single. Matt Holliday then grounded out to bring in Matt Carpenter from third base to tie the game. The Pirates retook the lead in the bottom half of the inning when John Jaso scored from first base on an Andrew McCutchen double, but a 2-run Home Run in the top of the fourth from Jedd Gyorko of all people gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game. The Cardinals then added a run in the top of the fifth, before the Pirates tied it in the bottom half. With the bases loaded, Cervelli grounded up the middle for what should have been an inning ending double play, but fill-in Shortstop Aledmys Diaz was unable to handle it. One run scored, everyone was safe, and Michael Wacha’s night ended then. While Polanco tied the game for the Pirates with a sacrifice fly the next at-bat, it remained 5-5 for six more innings, as the Cardinals bullpen retired the next 18 Pirate batters. The Pirates bullpen, while not as dominant, proved just as effective with Arquimedes Caminero, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, Mark Melancon, and Kyle Lobstein pitching a combined six scoreless innings. The Pirates finally got a baserunner on the Cardinals bullpen in the 11th inning when Polanco was able to draw a walk. Josh Harrison then put Polanco in scoring position with an infield single that was upheld after a Cardinals challenge. Jordy Mercer then brought Polanco home for the winning run with a Single down the first base line that zipped just under the outstretched glove of Matt Adams.
Winning Pitcher: Juan Nicasio (1-0)
Losing Pitcher: Mike Leake (0-1)
Save: Mark Melancon (1)
Juan Nicasio built upon his stellar spring with a dominant debut performance to help the Pirates complete their season opening sweep of the Cardinals. Nicasio gave up only two hits and struck out seven over six innings, with his only earned run surrendered coming on a solo Home Run from Jeremy Hazelbaker in the Sixth inning. Meanwhile, the Pirates gave Cardinals starter Mike Leake a hard time, forcing him to throw 44 pitches in the First inning alone. In the end, they were only able to get one run in the inning when Leake walked Gregory Polanco with the bases loaded, before getting Josh Harrison out for the final out of the inning. From there Leake settled down, only giving up one hit until the bottom of the Fifth, when John Jaso nearly gave the Pirates their first Home Run of the season. Instead, his shot to Right Field came up just short, bouncing off the top of the Clemente Wall. Eventually the ball was relayed to Kolten Wong who then proceeded to gift the Pirates a run by throwing the ball away attempting to throw Jaso out at Third base. The Pirates weren’t done in the Fifth inning yet, with David Freese and Starling Marte hitting back-to-back Singles. Francisco Cervelli then Doubled them home to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead and end Leake’s night. After Hazelbaker’s Home Run in the top of the Sixth inning, Sean Rodriguez, who was brought in to pinch hit for Nicasio, Doubled home Jordy Mercer to give the Pirates a 5-1 lead. In the Ninth inning Cory Luebke, making his Pirates debut and first Major League appearance since 2012, got two outs but also let two baserunners on. Clint Hurdle then brought in Mark Melancon who forced Kolten Wong to ground into a fielder’s choice for the final out to complete the sweep and give the all-star closer his first Save of the season.
Pirate of the Series: Gregory Polanco
With the season beginning and the players who were on the active roster being relatively well-rested and the Cardinals sending three Right-handed Pitchers to the mound every game, the Pirates used the same starting lineup for every game of the series. Of those eight starters, all performed well with every batter getting on base at least three times over the series. Because of this, there are several options for who the Pirate of the Series could be. However, in my opinion, it belongs to Gregory Polanco who during the series also signed a contract extension that will pay him at least $35 million and potentially keep him in Pittsburgh through 2023. While Polanco only went 3 for 7 in the series, the antiquated way baseball stats are kept does not account for the 5 walks he drew in the series. These walks, plus the game-tying sacrifice fly he hit in the Fifth inning of the second game of the series, helped to give him an OBP of .615 for the series. The hits he did make were big ones too, with two going for extra bases and all three having a launch velocity over 109 MPH according to MLB statcast. It’s nice to see Polanco get off to such a great start, given the up and down first season and a half of his career and the expectations that this season would be a breakout one for him. Hopefully he can keep this up and fulfill those expectations.
- It wasn’t all good for the Pirates, as Starling Marte has gotten off to a slow start this season. Marte went hitless in the first two games of the season before getting two Singles in the series finale. His quest for another gold glove had a false start as well as he appeared to lose track of a deep fly ball hit into the North Side Notch by Brandon Moss that bounced into the Left Field bleachers for a Double. This is on top of the aforementioned error that allowed a run to score in the same game. Hopefully Marte will shake this off and not let this poor series turn into a slow start.
- The Pirates also made some gaffes on the base paths, colloquially known as TOOTBLANs, during the series. Despite my just giving him Player of the Series, the culprit on a couple of these was Gregory Polanco. During the opener he was thrown out trying to advance to Second base on a deep sacrifice fly and he was also caught stealing in the Fourth inning of the third game. Additionally, Francisco Cervelli was caught between Third base and Home during the Eighth inning of the first game when Jordy Mercer failed to put down a bunt. The Pirates have frustrated fans at times in recent years with their play on the basepaths. Hopefully these events will not foreshadow more of the same.
- Despite being on the active roster last season there were those, including myself, who were not convinced that Arquimedes Caminero would be in Pittsburgh to open the season. Granted this was based on circumstantial evidence such as reports of him showing up to camp out of shape, shaky performances in exhibition games, and the Pirates bringing in several additional Relief Pitchers over the offseason to compete for a spot on the roster. Caminero was granted somewhat of a reprieve when fellow Right-handed reliever Jared Hughes went down with a strained left lat muscle towards the end of Spring Training. While Hughes has begun the season on the Disabled List, he’s expected back sometime in April. Caminero was given the opportunity to prove he deserves to stay in Pittsburgh when Hughes returns and he responded. In two appearances in this series he pitched 2.2 scoreless innings, striking out three and only giving up one hit. In this small sample size of 2016, Caminero has a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.75).
- I already discussed how balanced the lineup was for this opening series. It was only about midway through Opening Day though that I realized the scary good potential this lineup has once Jung Ho Kang returns from injury. I have even entertained the idea of keeping Freese at Third Base (his traditional position) and slotting Kang in as the starting Shortstop over Jordy Mercer. I don’t expect this to actually happen and injuries and general attrition from the long season will eventually give everyone in the infield plenty of playing time anyways. However this lineup has a lot of potential to help the Pirates win a lot of games, even without hitting a ton of Home Runs, of which the Pirates still have none. It’s nice to know that the Pirates offense may be able to win it some games, especially with some of the uncertainty still present at the back-end of the rotation.
- Some of the uncertainty may be gone though, as Juan Nicasio continued his excellent spring with a fantastic Bucco debut in the series finale. “Juan” will want to see him replicate this performance over the next several starts, but the rotation as a whole is starting to look a lot stronger than it looked during the offseason.
Series Result: Pirates win 3-0
Season Record: 3-0
Series Record: 1-0
Prediction Result: Incorrect prediction of Cardinals series win (0-1)
Next up: The Pirates begin a 3 game series with the Reds in Cincinnati on Friday