After dropping two of three to St. Louis, the Reds (5-4) head to Pittsburgh for a three-game series against the Pirates (3-6).

Pittsburgh is returning home after winning a series in Arizona, their first series victory of 2013. That was a significant accomplishment, given that the Bucs began the season by dropping five of their first six games. In those first six games of the year, they scored a grand total of eight runs. That’s right: eight. (By comparison, the Redlegs scored 38 runs in their first six games.)

Let’s rewind this little Betamax tape back to last July. July 18, specifically. Post-All Star break. Dog days of August right around the corner. Pretty deep into the baseball season, and two teams were all tied atop the NL Central standings: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

It was a simpler time, a time when those cute little Pirates fans were bubbly with their dreams of championships to come. A time before the Bucs fell off a cliff, collapsing to a fourth-place finish, 18 games behind the Reds.

Enough silliness. I have a lot of sympathy for Pittsburgh fans, mostly because it wasn’t too long ago that Reds fans were in the same position. Every year: hope. Every year: hopes dashed. Somehow the Reds climbed out of that hole; the Pirates are still climbing, but with a loaded farm system, they may not be far away.

The only real addition to this year’s Pittsburgh roster is catcher Russell Martin, who has returned to the National League after two seasons in New York with the Yankees. The only significant departure was Joel Hanrahan, who had a pretty good season in the Pirates’ bullpen before departing for Boston. Not a lot of roster turnover; in some ways, it seems as if Pittsburgh is marking time until prospects such as Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon hit the big leagues.

PIRATES’ LIKELY LINEUP

Here is the Pirates’ expected lineup for this series.

1. Starling Marte (R) LF
2. Neil Walker (S) 2B
4. Garrett Jones (L) 1B
6. Pedro Alvarez (L) 3B
7. Travis Snider (L) RF
8. Clint Barmes (R) SS

Everyone knows about Andrew McCutchen. He’s good. Very good. One of the best players in baseball. Enjoy watching him.

What else do the Pirates have going for them? Well, Neil Walker is not a bad little second baseman. An above-average bat and competent defense. Starling Marte had a decent rookie year in 2012; he strikes out too much, but he’s an interesting player with speed who has a chance to be a good player.

Garrett Jones is strictly a platoon player, but that’s not a criticism. He’s a good platoon player who thumps righties at a pretty good clip. He platoons with Gaby Sanchez at 1B, and that’s a pretty good duo. Pedro Alvarez isn’t bad, but he’s not what the Pirates had hoped for. He mashes fastballs (and almost nothing else), but he mashes them very well and will take an occasional walk.

Clint Barmes has a slick glove and no bat whatsoever.

PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS

A.J. Burnett (36) is, well…he’s A.J. Burnett. In other words: who knows? Burnett had a legitimately good season last year, after his well-publicized struggles with the Yankees. He compiled 16 wins, the second-highest total of his career, and posted a career-best 125 ERA+. Thus far in 2013, Burnett is 0-2 with a 3.27 ERA. Even better, the Pirates are giving away this gem of a t-shirt tonight.

Jeff Locke (25) came over from the Braves in the trade that sent Nate McLouth to Hot-lanta. He’s a young guy who wasn’t necessarily a very highly-rated prospect, but he’s a lefty with a decent sinker and changeup, so he’ll get a chance or two to stick in the majors. Locke is 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA this season.

Reds fans should be very familiar with Wandy Rodriguez (34), who beat up on Cincinnati a number of times during his previous stint as a Houston Astro. Rodriguez remains an effective lefty at age 34, even if he isn’t the staff anchor that the Astros considered him to be. In 2013, Rodriguez is 1-0 with a 1.00 ERA. I’m willing to place a wager that his ERA will rise a bit before the end of the season.

PIRATES’ BULLPEN

Pittsburgh’s bullpen, frankly, is not strong. Jason Grilli is the closer, and he’s the bright spot of the relief corp, by far. At age 36, however, with 8 career saves before this season, Grilli may be a testament to the proposition that any good middle reliever can be a starter. However you want to evaluate him, Grilli is a good pitcher.

Righty Jared Hughes and lefty Tony Watson are serviceable arms, as well, and Mark Melancon has arrived from Boston with some ability, especially against right-handed hitters.

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In summary, the Pirates have suffered through twenty consecutive losing seasons, and that ain’t easy to do, friends and neighbors. This year’s club, however, seems like it may have a chance to end that streak. Still some hope in Pittsburgh? Well, they aren’t going to win the division, but they won’t finish last either.