Pittsburgh Pirates Travel to St. Louis, Look to End Recent Skid

Apr 6, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon (35) pitches to St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon (35) pitches to St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Pittsburgh Pirates look to move past their recent series with the Cubs as they travel to St. Louis to take on the Cardinals for the first time since their season opening sweep of their NL Central rival. Read on for a preview of the upcoming series:

Record: 15-14 (3rd in NL Central)

Previous Series Result: Won 3 of 4 games against the Philadelphia Phillies

One could almost be forgiven for forgetting, in all the anticipation of this week’s meeting with the division-leading Chicago Cubs, that the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing their other NL Central arch-rival. Though it’s possible it was overlooked by some, the Pirates suddenly have another big early-season series this weekend against the Cardinals. Especially after getting swept by the Cubs, it has become apparent that it is unlikely that either the Pirates or Cardinals will catch them in the NL Central. However, the Cardinals and Pirates are still very good teams, so they will likely be battling each other all season for second place and possibly a spot in the playoffs.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Since getting swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates to open the season, the Cardinals have bounced back and are currently, like the Pirates, are just over .500 at 15-14. Currently only half a game separates the Cardinals and Pirates for second place in the NL Central, though as of now both are sitting outside the playoff picture thanks to the surprising Phillies (16-13). The Cardinals are still without their fourth outfielder Tommy Pham, who suffered an oblique injury on Opening Day. While he is expected to return soon it would not be before the end of this series. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta remains on the Disabled List, but the Cardinals aren’t missing him too much with Aledmys Diaz manning that spot on an everyday basis. There will be more on Diaz below.

As a whole the Cardinals, like the Pirates, are having a good season offensively. They are slashing .270/.344/.473 (6th/4th/2nd in MLB). However, they are different from the Pirates in that much of their offense, as evidenced by their team slugging percentage, is coming from the home run. In fact they lead all of baseball with 41 home runs, compared with the Pirates who are tied for 16th with 26. The Cardinals have also shown good discipline at the plate, drawing 103 walks, 7th in MLB. This could pose problems for Pirates pitchers who have issued the second-most free passes in baseball.


Pitching Matchups

Game 1 – May 6, 8:15 P.M. ET

Francisco Liriano (L) (2-1) vs. Carlos Martinez (R) (4-1)

Game 2 – May 7, 2:15 P.M. ET

Jeff Locke (L) (1-2) vs. Adam Wainwright (R) (2-3)

Game 3 – May 8, 2:15 P.M. ET

Gerrit Cole (R) (2-3) vs. Michael Wacha (R) (2-2)

Is this series where Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole anchor down and provide the reliability at the top of the rotation that we expected they would? I wouldn’t count on it, but Cole can’t get much worse than his last start when he walked four and gave up five earned runs over only 4.2 innings. Liriano has looked better in his last couple of starts as well. Keep in mind both have missed a start this season due to injuries, could they still be nagging them? Or maybe they were, but they’re now over them? Am I just guessing? (Yes). As for Jeff Locke, I’ve given up ever knowing what to expect from him.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pirates will be facing the ace of the Cardinals staff in this series, but it isn’t Adam Wainwright. Carlos Martinez is leading the way for what has been a relatively underwhelming rotation. Martinez is currently 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA, with his only loss coming on Sunday against the Washington Nationals. The 24-year-old had a bit of a breakout season last year, going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA and striking out 9.22 batters per nine innings. This year while his strikeout rate is down (7.27 K/9), so is his walk rate (3.16 BB/9 down to 2.08 BB/9).

Other than that, his good traditional stats are misleading as he has a FIP of 3.73 and his home run rate is up (1.04 HR/9 up from 0.65 HR/9 in 2015).

On the flip side Adam Wainwright is off to a horrendous start after missing most of last season. While he is only 2-3, his strikeout rate is way down and his walk rate is way up and he has an ERA of 6.68. While his FIP is much lower than that, it is still a not very good 4.70. Michael Wacha is having a reasonably good season, just like every season he’s had since coming into the big leagues. The only major anomaly thus far is his low ERA which currently sits at 2.65 compared to his career 3.16. This number should rise over the season as he currently has a FIP of 3.44. Michael Wacha only lasted 4.1 innings and gave up four earned runs off ten hits in his first start against the Pirates in the second game of the season.


Recent Meetings

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates of course opened the 2016 season by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in a three game series at PNC Park. They won the opener by a 4-1 score, before defeating the 6-5 in extra innings in the second game. Jordy Mercer provided the game winning hit in that matchup in the 11th inning. The Pirates then completed the sweep by winning the series finale 5-1. The middle game was something of a precursor to Jon Niese’s struggles this season as he was the only starter who struggled in that opening series, despite getting away with a no decision. While Niese did strike out seven, he lasted only five innings and gave up four earned runs during his stint on the mound. Overall, the Pirates outscored the Cardinals in that series 15-7, with five of their runs coming in the middle game. Overall, they also outhit St. Louis 30-17.


Cardinals Player to Watch: Aledmys Diaz

Aledmys Diaz is off to a blazing start in his first Major League season. Only brought to St. Louis out of Spring Training due to injuries at the shortstop position, he is currently slashing .381/.422/.679 over 90 plate appearances in 26 games. Diaz really did come out of nowhere this season, as he only played in 14 games at even the AAA level. Additionally, while his stats will certainly come down over the season, they may not as much as you would expect. He not surprisingly has a high BABIP, but at .380 it’s not as high as one would think. On top of all of this, Diaz has 5 home runs on the season and has only struck out in 8.9 percent of plate appearances.

Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Where he has seen some growing pains though is in the field as he already has 5 errors on the season. While he does play shortstop, a position known for seeing large volume and as a result a large number of errors, he may be suffering a bit from Pedro Alvarez syndrome as 4 of those errors were throwing errors. Regardless of this, Diaz is not only off to a great start but may be torturing Pirates pitchers for the next few years. So, you may as well get acquainted with him so you can begin hating him accordingly.


Pirates Keys to Victory

Limit Cardinal Home Runs

The Cardinals are leading the Majors in home runs and I think it would be asking a little much that Pirates’ pitchers keep the ball in the park over all three games. That being said, the Cardinals score a lot of their runs off of home runs and the Pirates should try not to make things any harder on themselves. If they can limit the number of home runs in this series and force the Cardinals to string hits together to score, then the Pirates should at the very least be in the game late which would be nice after the Cubs built up huge leads relatively early against the Pirates.

 

Gerrit Cole Needs to Show Up

Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

Gerrit Cole has looked like less than an ace this season and looked awful in his most recent start against the Cubs. The problems with the Pirates’ pitching rest just as much with the uneven performances of their supposed aces as they do with the struggles of Niese and the inconsistencies of Juan Nicasio and Locke. If Cole can find his groove again and start being the dominant pitcher that he was for so much of last season it will go a long way towards helping the Pirates as they try to keep pace with the Cubs, Cardinals, and other National League contenders.

 

Steal a Win against Carlos Martinez

The Cardinals are sending an underperforming pitcher in Adam Wainwright to the mound on Saturday, and a pitcher who hasn’t been nearly as unbeatable against the Pirates since the 2013 playoffs in Michael Wacha on Sunday. Then there’s Carlos Martinez who, as mentioned above, is having a great start to the season. Luckily for the Pirates, they are matching with Francisco Liriano. If Liriano does his job and the Pirates can steal a few runs and/or get to Martinez a bit, then the Pirates have a great chance of winning the game, the series, and possibly even sweeping the Cardinals for the second time this season.

Next: Jameson Taillon Should Be In The Pirate Rotation


Series Prediction

I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. Unlike what I said above, I do not really believe that the Pirates will sweep the Cardinals again. Then again I said that when they first met and look what happened. Anyways, I expect the Pirates to end their recent skid by winning this series and putting some separation between themselves and the Cardinals for second place. Maybe I’m just optimistic that Cole and Liriano will begin pitching like the aces we know they are capable of being, but I have a good feeling about this series. Then again, things hopefully can’t go much worse than they did in the last series.

Prediction: Pirates 2-1

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /