3 keys for Pirates to bounce back against Rockies after disappointing series vs. Cardinals

Minnesota Twins v Pittsburgh Pirates
Minnesota Twins v Pittsburgh Pirates / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

After dropping two of three games to the division-rival Cardinals this week, a series against the cellar-dwelling Rockies has the potential to turn into a pivotal moment for the Pirates. With a thin bullpen and a thinner rotation, Pittsburgh lands in Colorado with an opportunity to prove itself as a team capable of overcoming adversity or as one that folds under pressure.

The Pirates enter the three-game set in last place in the NL Central yet only 1.5 games out of the third Wild Card spot. The challenge Pittsburgh faces, though, is its ineptitude against sub-.500 teams. The club’s record against teams currently under .500 stands at 19-23. They’re 13-13 against teams better than .500, including a recent homestand in which they won a pair of series against the Dodgers and Twins.

3 keys for Pirates to bounce back against Rockies after disappointing series

Who will pitch?

The three-game set against the Rockies will pose a challenge, particularly to the pitching staff. The only named starter as of Friday afternoon is Jared Jones, who will go on Saturday. Sunday should be Paul Skenes’ day to start, but the Pirates have yet to confirm this. Considering the young fireballer would be going on four days’ rest and pitching at altitude, Pittsburgh may save Skenes for the series opener against the Reds at home on Monday. 

And that's exactly what happened during this writing. Skenes was pushed to Monday as Carmen Mlodzinski was named Friday's starter in what should be a bullpen game.

Adding insult to injury (or injury to insult as the case may be), Hunter Stratton exited Thursday’s finale in St. Louis with shoulder tightness. Luis Ortiz will likely be called upon to shoulder the bulk of the innings in at least one game, as he did admirably in a bullpen game against the Twins on June 8. 

Offensive spark

The trip to Colorado, though, could be a boon for the Pirates’ batters, who have hit a tepid stretch. The team failed to capitalize in St. Louis, going a combined 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position. In the last seven days, the Pirates have hit .207/.276/.332. Pittsburgh will face the Rockies’ three worst starters: Ryan Feltner, Ty Blach, and Dakota Hudson. Colorado’s bullpen holds a 5.62 ERA, the worst in the majors.

Little help seems to be on the way internally as far as the offense goes. Joey Bart, Ji Hwan Bae, and Alika Williams are all injured; only Williams has begun rehab appearances. Joshua Palacios, also on the 40-man roster, is still working back from injury. Only Liover Peguero, currently with Triple-A Indianapolis, seems a viable option for an offensive call-up.

However, a few performances seem to indicate that a strong series in hitter-friendly Coors Field could turn things around for the offense. Pirates fans will have to hope that Henry Davis’s homer on Wednesday is a sign of things to come. Similarly, Oneil Cruz enters the pivotal series hitting .286/.316/.514 with a pair of homers in June. The resurgent Andrew McCutchen has historically performed well at Coors Field, posting a .974 OPS at the stadium in 46 appearances.

Make up ground

As mentioned previously, the Pirates currently stand 1.5 games out of the final Wild Card spot. In order to return to the postseason for the first time since 2015, Pittsburgh needs to figure out how to win the games they should win. The Rockies are currently 20 games under .500. The Pirates need to take advantage.

The Cardinals, who jumped into a tie for the third Wild Card spot thanks to their series win over Pittsburgh, line up against the division-rival Cubs this weekend. A series split could play to the Pirates’ advantage, keeping St. Louis and Chicago locked in place while Pittsburgh has a chance to leapfrog them. The Reds similarly face NL Central-leading Milwaukee, giving the Pirates another chance to gain ground in the Wild Card race.

Following the three-game set against the Rockies, the Pirates return home to face Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh is currently in a stretch of 15 straight games against sub-.500 clubs, and the only teams currently above .500 that they are scheduled to face between now and the All-Star break are Atlanta and Milwaukee. Now is a crucial time for the Pirates to distinguish themselves and break away from the pack in Colorado.