Oh, right, that.

The Pittsburgh Pirates sail into the Queen City this weekend for a three-game showdown with our Cincinnati Reds. Reds fans have rightly taken to bragging about our best record (64-41) in MLB. But Pittsburgh (60-44) arrives in Cincinnati unnervingly close in the standings, just two wins off the pace for second-best and have beaten the Reds five out of nine games so far in 2012.

The Reds are 23 games over .500 /stops typing, thumps chest/ but the Pirates are 16 games to the good as well. Rare air for both organizations. In fact, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ streak of consecutive losing seasons is as old as Bryce Harper, the longest in North American sports history (and surely the envy of Bengals’ owner, Mike Brown). The Reds themselves are looking to make the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. 

Thom Brennaman would say this is the most important series between the Reds and Pirates in the history of history, at least until the two other remaining series in September. Well, maybe 1970, 1972, 1975 or 1990.

Nation, strap in for a big, big weekend at GABP.

PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS

Wandy Rodriguez (7-9, 3.82 ERA/3.80 FIP) is a recent trade acquisition from Houston. He’s started once for the Pirates, against the Astros in Minute Maid Park. (In fact, when Wandy was traded to Pittsburgh, the Pirates told him to just stay put in Houston for a few days until they arrived.) Rodriguez has been less-than-wandyful in his starts against the Reds in 2012. It’s altogether possible that he’ll face nine right handed hitters tonight, since JoeyMRI remains out during this easy part of the schedule, and Dusty Baker thinks Wandy is Jay Bruce’s kryptonite.

James McDonald (10-5, 3.37 ERA/3.81 FIP) has been one of two Pirate aces this season. Against teams with winning records in the first half of the season, he was 5-1 with a 2.45 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. That includes two wins over the Reds, against whom he’s allowed one run in 14 1/3 innings. BUT the last four starts have been McDonald’s worst of times, facing the likes of the Astros, Cubs, Rox and Brewers. McDonald has cratered since the ASG. In 20.2 IP he’s given up 21 earned runs and walked 19. Which … wow.

Erik Bedard (5-12, 4.83 ERA/3.94 FIP) has been a decent fifth starter for the Pirates, but a bit of an enigma. He leads the major leagues in losses and often pitches only five innings or fewer. Bedard has not pitched against the Reds this season.  How can the Pirates not use A. J. Burnett (13-3, 3.27 ERA/3.56 FIP), their other ace, on Sunday? That would skip him ahead of Bedard. But because the Pirates had yesterday off, Sunday would be Burnett’s normal day to pitch. The Pirates would be able to replace a pitcher that is uber-meh with one that’s been great. Burnett (35) is coming off a one-hit shutout against the stupid Cubs. Friday AM Update: Told ya.

PIRATES LIKELY LINEUP

Pittsburgh’s batting order is difficult to predict because they have played just one game with all their trade deadline pieces and that was against a left-handed pitcher (Travis Wood!). This is my best guess as to what we’ll see, although I’d be surprised if Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t use several lineups over the course of the series.

1. Starling Marte (R) LF
2. Neil Walker (S) 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen (R) CF
4. Garrett Jones (L) RF
5. Gaby Sanchez (R) 1B
6. Pedro Alvarez (L) 3B
7. Rod Barajas (R) C
8. Clint Barmes (R) SS
 
 
 
Over the past 30 days, the Pirates’ bats have vastly improved. Their offensive production (.260/.316/.449) is basically indistinguishable from the Reds (.264/.328/.449) over that time. Note: those slugging percentages are identical. For some reason, the Pirates have stopped stealing bases, with only five in the last 30 days (Reds have 20) which puts them way last in that category in the National League. Pittsburgh’s walk-rate is a horrible second-to-last in the NL.
 
Starling Marte is a Pirate you’ve probably never seen play or heard of. He’s a 23-year-old position player gemof their farm system and was called up about a week ago. Hurdle installed Marte in left field and the leadoff spot in the batting order. In seven games, he’s homered twice and stolen two bases. Marte does have a rookie’s eye, having failed to walk in 33 plate appearances and struck out in 24% of his AB.

Andrew McCutchen is really good at baseball. He’s having a historic and MVP season (.373/.432/.632) with 22 HR and 14 SB. The Reds have had decent luck against McCutchen in 2012, he’s hitting just .231 in the nine head-to-head games. But Nation, we should still … wait for it … dread every time he comes to the plate.

The Pirates traded their competitive balance draft pick to the Miami Marlins for RH first baseman Gaby Sanchez (28). Sanchez had been passable prior to 2012 (.260/.334/.421), but this season, his hitting has fallen off a cliff (.200/.251/.303). The Marlins even sent him back to the minors for a stretch in May. But a major “change of scenery” jumpstart is certainly on the table for Sanchez. Hurdle penciled him in the clean-up spot this week, which says something.

Pedro Alvarez was a top slugging prospect coming out of Vanderbilt, where he played with Tampa Bay Ray ace David Price. After prolonged struggles at the plate, the third baseman has finally begun to reward the Pirates’ patience. In 2012, he’s blasted 21 home runs with 58 RBI. Alvarez still strikes out at an eye-blinking rate of 31.4%. Whiffs notwithstanding, fear his potent bat near the bottom of the Pirates lineup.

THE PIRATES BULLPEN

The Pirates bullpen has held opponents to a .227 opponent batting average and .665 OPS against to go along with the 2nd best (to Cincinnati) bullpen ERA in the majors at 2.81. As a group, they’ve had the fewest blown saves in the majors with just 6. Joel Hanrahan anchors the relief corps. He’s saved 31 games and comes with a nearly-elite K/9 (10.6). But Hanrahan’s ERA-FIP gap (2.76-4.12) belies offsetting weaknesses – first and foremost, his walk-rate of over 4 per nine innings. The Reds need to practice patience against him.

The Pirates do have other solid arms in the bullpen. Jason Grilli boasts the team’s best strikeout rate at 14.1 K/9. Juan Cruz is another 8th inning weapon for Clint Hurdle who also strikes out more than a batter per inning. Like Hanrahan, both Grilli (3.9 BB/9) and Cruz (4.9 BB/9) walk an excessive number of batters.

Hurdle lost an strong late-inning option in the trade for Travis Snider. Brad Lincoln, who had been excellent (1.096 WHIP, 9.1 K/9), was traded to the Blue Jays and was effectively replaced on the roster with Chad Qualls (1.578 WHIP, 4.9 K/9) of the Yankees. That’s probably a net loss for them.  As against most teams, the combination of Chapman-Marshall-Broxton should give the Reds an edge at the end of the game if it’s close.

(Insert mental image of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench squaring off with Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker.)

So, arrrrrgh you ready to rumble?