Pittsburgh Pirates Open Second Half Against NL East Leading Nationals

Jul 24, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) pitches against Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang (27) during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 24, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) pitches against Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang (27) during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates begin the second half of the season looking to continue their hot play from prior to the All-Star Break. It won’t be easy though as they take on the NL East leading Washington Nationals on the road. Read on for a preview of the series.

Nationals Record: 54-36 (1st in NL East)

Last Series Result: Won 3 of 4 against the New York Mets

Probable Pitching Matchups

Game 1 – July 15, 7:05 P.M. EDT

Francisco Liriano (L) (5-8) vs. Stephen Strasburg (R) (12-0)

Game 2 – July 16, 7:05 P.M. EDT

Gerrit Cole (R) (5-4) vs. Tanner Roark (R) (8-5)

Game 3 – July 17, 1:35 P.M. EDT

Chad Kuhl (R) (1-0) vs. Max Scherzer (R) (10-6)

The Pittsburgh Pirates get a tough matchup right out of the All-Star Break as they take on a formidable Washington Nationals team. The Nationals are a team that hits a lot of home runs with their power coming throughout the lineup. The Nationals have six players with double digit home runs and have 124 total as a team (5th in MLB). The team’s overall hitting is mediocre though, with the team batting .252 as a whole, only 19th in baseball. This is made up to some degree by a high number of walks (323 total, 5th in MLB) giving them a team OBP of .327 (13th in MLB).

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Overall the Nationals had five players selected for the All-Star Game (Scherzer, Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Wilson Ramos). Bryce Harper is having another great season, leading the team with a .399 OBP and 19 home runs, despite having a relatively low batting average of .256. This can be blamed on a low BABIP of .252, meaning that odds are good that he will only produce at an even higher level during the second half of the season, a frightening prospect for the rest of the National League. Perhaps luckily for Harper, his relative struggles have been overshadowed by the production of new teammate Daniel Murphy, on which there will be more below.

Despite their power, what has propelled the Nationals to a six game lead in the NL East is their pitching. The Nationals sent two members of their rotation to this week’s All-Star Game (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg), both of whom the Pittsburgh Pirates have the opportunity to face this weekend. Scherzer and Strasburg are of course the aces of the staff, with the former having the second lowest WHIP in baseball (0.93) among qualifying pitchers and the latter leading the team with a 2.62 ERA and having yet to be charged with a loss. Beyond them, four of the five members of the rotation have a WHIP lower than 1.30 and an ERA below 3.50.

Recent Meetings

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be facing the Nationals for the first time this season. Last season though, the home teams had the upper team when these two squads met. They first met in late June in Washington, D.C. where the Nationals swept the Pirates in a three game series. The Pirates exacted a measure of revenge though the next month when the Nationals came to Pittsburgh for four games.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates won that series, taking three of the four contests. Overall, the Nationals had a slight edge, with the Pirates only going 3-4 in the series and the Nationals outscoring them 27-23.

The most notable matchup between the two teams would have come when the two teams met on June 20 last year. In that game, Max Scherzer completely shut down the Pirates not allowing a baserunner through most of the game. With two outs in the ninth inning, and Scherzer one strike away from immortality, pinch hitter Jose Tabata was hit by a pitch that grazed his elbow. There was controversy regarding this, as it appeared that Tabata had leaned into the pitch. Scherzer would get Josh Harrison to fly out to complete the no-hitter, but he had missed out on the perfect game.

Nationals Player to Watch: Daniel Murphy

Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports /

The Nationals have to be pleasantly surprised with the production they have gotten from Daniel Murphy since they signed him for a three year deal worth 37.5 million dollars over the offseason. Murphy has always had pretty good offensive production, especially for a second baseman, slashing .294/.336/.440 for his career. However, Murphy is enjoying a career year this season slashing .348/.387/.598 on the season.

While his BABIP is on the higher side (.352 compared with a .318 career), it does not suggest a complete regression is imminent. Additionally, his 17 home runs are already a career high. His numbers hold up from an advanced analytics standpoint as well with a .410 wOBA and a 157 wRC+.

Finally, his WAR according to Fangraphs is at 3.7, already a career high. Murphy has been instrumental to the Nationals’ success during the first half of the season. While they have built up a nice lead in the division race, Murphy’s continued high production is vital if the Nationals want to hold off their division foes and contend for home field in the playoffs.

Next: Josh Bell Shows Why The NL Needs The DH

Pittsburgh Pirates Keys to Victory

Prevent Home Runs

The Nationals are mediocre when it comes to hitting for average, but hit many home runs. This means that they are reliant on the long ball when it comes to scoring runs. As mentioned above, they have a potent lineup with six players with double digit home runs. If Pirates’ pitchers can keep the ball in the park, it will be harder for the Nationals to put up runs.

Take Advantage of Opportunities

The Nationals have a formidable pitching staff. As a result opportunities may be few and far between. That’s why it is very important that the Pittsburgh Pirates take advantage of them when they arise. Unfortunately, clutch hitting is largely a myth and random so there is little the Pirates can do to control this.

Limit Walks

While the Nationals don’t hit well for average, they make up for it somewhat with a high number of walks. Like with home runs, the Pirates can’t allow any free passes to limit opportunities for the Nationals to put runs up. This is especially important given the high number of walks that Pirates’ pitchers issue (312, 5th most in MLB).

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.

The Nationals are going to be a tough opponent for the Pirates, especially given the pitching matchups. Though the Pirates do have the benefit of getting Gerrit Cole back from the Disabled List on Saturday, Strasburg and Scherzer on Friday and Sunday respectively will be tough to combat. I think the Nationals will win this series and based on just the pitching matchups I’ll take it another step and predict the Pirates to lose the first and third games, but win the second.

 Prediction: Nationals 2-1

 *Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, baseball reference, mlb.com, and espn.com