Next Three Weeks Critical for the Pittsburgh Pirates

New York Mets v Pittsburgh Pirates
New York Mets v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin Berl/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Pirates face a crucial stretch of the season as they're about to play division rivals Chicago and Milwaukee for the first time this season. They will play three-game series home and away against both teams in the next three weeks.

"Mighty" Mitch Keller led the Pittsburgh Pirates to a crucial 2-1 win over the New York Mets this afternoon thanks to his one-run, two-hit performance through seven innings. Combine that with Oakland's sweep of the Brewers in Milwaukee and the Pirates are in first place in the National League Central division.

Did anybody out there predict that the Pirates would be in first place almost midway through June? Thought not!

Obviously, there is a lot of baseball left to be played and the Pirates have only played 64 games thus far. But, isn't it at least a bit exciting to start thinking about the possibility of "Buctober" for the first time since 2015?

Remember, there are six teams that qualify for the post-season in each league, so the Pirates could be in the divisional and wild card races for a good while.

Tuesday nights starts a crucial stretch in Pittsburgh's schedule due to the fact that the Pirates play Central division rivals Chicago and Milwaukee in 12 of their next 19 games. The Pirates haven't played either club as of yet and have only played 14 divisional games thus far.

In contrast, Pittsburgh has played an astounding 29 games already against teams in the American League thanks to MLB's new "play one, play all" scheduling format. In playing every team in baseball, it cuts down the number of games against teams in one's own division, thus making each game that much more meaningful.

Milwaukee is one game behind Pittsburgh in the National League Central division, while Chicago is in fourth place, 6 1/2 games off the pace.

The biggest key will be how well the starting pitching performs. To say that there has been some inconsistency would be a bit of an understatement.

However, heading into Tuesday's series in Chicago, the starters have a bit of momentum and probably more confidence based on their performance over the weekend against the New York Mets.

Keller struck out seven in today's win. Friday, Rich Hill gave up two runs and scattered seven hits over seven innings in the Pirates' 14-7 win over the Mets.

Despite losing yesterday, Johan Oviedo had a quality start as he went 6 1/3 innings and gave up two runs on only four hits.

Luis Ortiz gets the ball in Chicago to start the series Tuesday night. He last worked on Wednesday when he pitched five innings in relief of Roansy Contreras and gave up only two runs. The last start from Ortiz came against St. Louis on June 3rd and it only lasted two innings.

By the way, Contreras is headed back to the bullpen for the immediate future. The Pirates are calling up Osvaldo Bido for pitching help, but it's not clear if he will be a starter or a reliever.

Bido was 3-4 in Indianapolis so far this year with a 4.55 ERA with 10 starts along with two relief appearances. Manager Derek Shelton has not named a starter for the second game of the Milwaukee series on Saturday, so it might be presumed it will be Bido to start or perhaps it will be a bullpen game.

As the Bucs head to Chicago, they will face a Cubs team that has won 9 and lost 18 since May 12th, although they did take two out of three against San Francisco this weekend. The Cubs have not won more than two games in a row since April 19 when they won four in a row after defeating Los Angeles to win the series, then they swept Oakland.

These next few weeks are going give Pirates fans a lot of insight as to the way this season will go. Playing winning baseball against the Cubs and Brewers would be a tremendous step towards post-season contention.

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