Since the Pittsburgh Pirates destroyed the St. Louis Cardinals in the season's Opening Series by completing a three-game sweep, both teams have meandered along near .500 with the Pirates going 12-13 and the Cardinals going 15-11 since their last meeting. They have played a similar mish-mash of also-rans like the Cardinals but were most recently seen getting swept by the Cubs.
After on off-day yesterday, the Pirates are set to send their Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano against Carlos Martinez, who did not pitch in the first series. After which Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will get a second chance as the Pirates send out the adequate Jeff Locke and the slightly disappointing only due to incredible expectations, Gerrit Cole. This weekend, the Cardinals should destroy the Pirates.
On offense for Pittsburgh, Gregory Polanco certainly looks like he is fulfilling the promise that made him a great prospect after a relatively average start to his career. Polanco is walking more than he is striking out, has solid power numbers due to 10 doubles already on the season, although he has not yet figured out base-stealing of yet with 2 steals on five attempts. Add him to Starling Marte, who has broken out already and perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and you have one of the very best outfields in all of baseball.
Polanco is not the only Pirate with more walks than strikeouts as catcher Francisco Cervelli has done the same and is on his way to cashing a nice free agent check at the end of the season after finally getting a chance to start in Pittsburgh last season. He does not hit for a lot of power, but is considered a good framer to make up for average throwing and blocking.
Former Cardinals' hometown hero David Freese will make his first return to St. Louis since the trade after the 2013 season that brought Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to St. Louis. Freese is sure to receive a deserved standing ovation that others might mock because they don't believe you should cheer for people you like.
The MVP of the both the NLCS and the World Series in 2011 as well as one of the most amazing series of hits in Cardinals history. The Cardinals had just an 8% chance of winning game 6 before Freese hit his triple, which afterwards went to 62%. Given it was Game 6, Rany Jazayerli calculated that Freese's triple improved the Cardinals chances of winning the World Series by 27% on that one play alone. That hit didn't even give the Cardinals the lead. He would do that later.
All eight Pirates regulars have wRC+ of at least 100 on the season and of those eight, only Jordy Mercer is not projected to continue to hit at an average to above-average level. The Pirates are not a team with great depth, but they are getting good news in the return of Jung Ho Kang. Kang had a really good season going before he was injured in a nasty takeout slide by Chris Coghlan in September, and his unfortunate knee injury raised awareness to spur on changes to the slide rules at second base. Kang has experience at shortstop, but is expected to take over a majority of the playing time at third base from David Freese.
On the pitching side, everyone should be pretty familiar with Francisco LIriano, who struck out 10 Cardinals against five walks in six innings on Opening Day. Liriano has not had the same success since that first win, having a bit of trouble with walks (12 in 22 IP) and homers (5), but pitched well his last time out against the Reds, striking out 6 with no walks and one run in 6 2/3 innings. Carlos Martinez, who had four solid starts followed by six solid innings against the Nationals before giving up a couple homers in the seventh heads to the mound to face the Pirates.
Jeff Locke did not face the Cardinals in the series to begin the year. Locke has had his own tough run of walks this season with 17 against just 21 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings pitched. Locke is on his way to his fourth straight mediocre season with the Pirates. He has given them innings and above-replacement production, which is nothing to look down upon. It will make the second straight lefty in the series, so it will be interesting to see how Mike Matheny chooses to stack his lineup. Adam Wainwright has been taking small steps forward since struggling mightily to begin the season. The Pirates will make for a formidable test.
Gerrit Cole missed parts of Spring Training due to inflammation around his rib cage, and thus missed the Cardinals' Opening series despite his status as Pirates' ace and one of the game's best pitchers. He has an ERA near four, but some batted ball luck has not gone his way with a 63% left-on-base rate. His strikeouts are a little down from last season with his walks a little up, but there is no reason to think that Cole will not pull things to gether in short order. He still has that great fastball-slider combo that has been tough on hitters.
Cole will face off against Michael Wacha, a pitcher 10 months younger than Cole who has put up solid numbers so far this season. Over his last two start, Wacha 17 strikeouts against just 5 walks in 15 innings pitched with just 4 runs given up with the damage coming from three homers. We'll see if he can keep the ball down in what should be a very good pitching matchup.
The bullpen has not yet been as effective for the Pirates as in year's past, but the sample sizes of April and early May mean not much can be read into those performances. Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Neftali Feliz should be solid for the Pirates.
These two teams are still finding their bearings at this point in the season. Both teams figured to contend before the season started, and both teams still have those aspirations despite middling records so far. We have a few very good pitching matchups which should make for a very lively, entertaining season.
Enjoy the weekend.