The decidedly undead Pittsburgh Pirates’ ship sails into Great American Ball Park this week for a four-game series, starting tonight. The Pirates have been raising the Jolly Roger plenty this season and are fresh off series wins over the Dodgers and Giants. At the end of May, they took three of four from the World Series-favorite, Detroit Tigers.

This is the third series between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in 2013, but the first played on the banks of the Ohio River. The Pirates swept the Reds back in April and only Sunday Bullpen Meltdown II prevented the Reds from returning the favor in early June.

The Reds are off to their fastest start since 1995 and have the second best record (42-28) in baseball. Yet, they enjoy only a half-game edge over the Pirates (41-28).

Tonight’s titanic struggle marks the start of a perilous stretch of The Big 162 for the Reds. That makes the next four games Use-Chapman-in-the-Eighth-Inning-to-Face-Garrett-Jones-with-Two-Outs-and-a-Runner-On important.

PIRATES’ HITTING: Dread Man’s Chest

The Pirates offense ranks in the bottom half of the NL. Even worse, in the past thirty days, they have been next-to-last in runs scored and on-base-percentage. The Reds pitchers shut them out twice in the June series.

Possible lineup (stats through Saturday):

Player Bats Pos Age AVG OBP SLG HR SB oWAR dWAR
Starling Marte (R) LF 24  .289  .357  .426  6  20  1.4  0.8
Travis Snider (L) RF 25  .238  .303  .365  3  1  -0.1  0.2
Andrew McCutchen (R) CF 26  .298  .367  .464  7  15  2.6  0.9
Garrett Jones (L) 1B 31  .260  .310  .427  6  1  0.6  -0.7
Russell Martin (R) C 30  .247  .340  .419  7  3  1.6  1.2
Pedro Alvarez (L) 3B 26  .212  .283  .443  14  1  0.6  0.1
Neil Walker (S) 2B 27  .259  .353  .397  5  1  1.2  0.1
Clint Barmes (R) SS 34  .198  .231  .265  2  0  -0.6  0.6

Andrew McCutchen is one of those players you love to watch play even though he’s wearing the opposing team’s uniform – and not just because of the dreadlocks. McCutchen combines speed (20+ SB) and power (31 HR in 2012) on offense with Gold Glove (2012) defense. While he hasn’t repeated his MVP-level performance of 2012, “Cutch” has overcome his slow start and hit .348/.434/.478 in June. He also has his own TV show.

Starling Marte has emerged as an extremely impressive young player. He and Shin-Soo Choo may be the two best leadoff hitters in the National League. Marte has been sidelined for the past four games with a strained rib cage. He did play in yesterday’s game against the Dodgers as a defensive replacement in left field in the sixth inning, ending speculation that he might be headed for the DL with an oblique injury. It’s unclear if and when he’ll start against the Reds.

PIRATES’ PITCHING: The Curse of the DL

AJ Burnett, ace of the Pirates pitching staff, recently landed on the disabled list with a right calf injury. Jay Bruce’s personal Blackbeard, Wandy Rodriguez, is also on the shelf suffering from the ever-ominous “tight forearm.” James MacDonald has been struggling with a shoulder injury for months. Pitchers Jeff Karstens, Jared Hughes and Jeanmar Gomez are also out. The Pirates have weathered the downpour of pitching injuries so far.  But as trips to the disabled list mount, DL could come to mean Davy Jones’ Locker for their post-season chances.

The Reds will also miss Pirate phenom Garrett Cole, who got a win against the Dodgers yesterday. Cole drew 30,000 fans to his first start at PNC Park last week. But even without Barnett, Rodriguez and Cole, the Pirate starters in this series not named Cumpton present a considerable challenge for the Reds.

Start Time Pitcher ERA FIP FBV BABIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
Mon 7:10 pm Francisco Liriano (L) 2.36 1.94 92.8 .319 10.5 3.6 1.4
Mike Leake 2.76 3.54 90.2 .305 6.5 2.0 1.3
Tue 7:10 pm Charlie Morton 3.60 3.46 93.9 .438 9.0 1.8 0.1
Mat Latos 3.08 3.35 91.8 .293 7.7 2.3 1.7
Wed 7:10 pm Jeff Locke (L) 2.19 3.81 90.0 .233 6.6 3.9 0.8
Bronson Arroyo 3.27 4.14 86.9 .269 5.1 1.4 0.8
Thu 12:35 pm Brandon Cumpton 5.40 1.66 91.4  .412 9.0 1.8  0.2
Homer Bailey 3.80 2.68 93.3  .302 8.7 2.3  2.4

In 2006, the Cy Young award winner in the American League was Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins. That season, the Twins moved a rookie pitcher into the starting rotation in mid-May. Over 15 starts, he compiled a record of 11-3 and a major league leading ERA of 2.16. The rookie had a higher strikeout rate, a lower home run rate, a lower ERA and a lower FIP than Santana did in his Cy Young year. That 23-year old was Francisco Liriano.

Liriano had Tommy John surgery on November 6, 2006  and missed the entire 2007 season. He’s struggled since then, with all-too-fleeting periods of success. Over 60 starts in 2011 and 2012, his ERA was a garish 5.20. Liriano has never really been the same pitcher he was that summer of 2006. Until maybe now. He began the 2013 season on the DL but since his first appearance on May 11, Liriano has had five excellent starts out of seven, including one against the Reds on June 1, when he gave up four hits, one run and struck out eleven in just six innings.

Has Liriano really entered a time warp back to 2006, or is he simply teasing Pirates fans as he has those of the Twins and White Sox in recent years? The odds say the latter. However, if you see him take a jump to the left and then a step to the right …

Charlie Morton’s start last week against the Giants was his first of the season. He gave up two earned runs in five innings, while striking out five and walking one. Morton also hit three batters (look out Shin-Soo!). Two years ago, Charlie Morton was utter kryptonite to the Reds. But Votto and crew did beat him twice last season before he went on the DL to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Jeff Locke is a young (25) left-hander who is off to an excellent, if a bit lucky, start to 2013. His record (6-1) and ERA (2.19) are sparkling, but they are belied by underlying peripherals. His strikeout rate (6.6 K/9) is low and way too similar to his walk-rate (3.9 BB/9). He BABIP shows he’s also been lucky with balls in play.

It will be interesting to see how Dusty Baker lines up the hitters against the two lefties who take the mound for the Pirates this series, particularly given Shin-Soo Choo’s profound struggles vs. southpaws.

Brandon Cumpton (24) will start the second game of his major league career on Thursday. His first was Saturday against the Dodgers. Cumpton is far from one of the Pirates top prospects and his minor league numbers scream more Pedro Villarreal than Pedro Martinez. He’s walking the plank against the Reds because of the aforementioned injury parade.

And, oh yeah, the last time Homer Bailey took the ball against the Pirates it worked out OK.


Overall, the Pirates bullpen is middle-of-the-pack (still ahead of the Reds) but their eighth- and ninth-inning specialists have been, well, quite special.

Jason Grilli (RH) has been the best closer in baseball this season. Not the best in the NL Central or the National League. The best in both major leagues. He’s converted all 25 of his save opportunities and surrendered a run in only three of his 33 appearances. His ERA is 0.88 and his FIP is half that.

Grilli’s strikeout-rate (14.9) barely trails Aroldis Chapman’s (15.6), yet his walk-rate (1.8) is well below that of his Cuban counterpart (3.6). Keep in mind that Grilli is a 36-year old journeyman (the Pirates are his sixth organization) who has never closed before this year. His success is further proof that clubs do not need “established” closers or to sacrifice infinite-ceiling starting pitchers simply so they can swaddle their narrow-minded managers in a ninth-inning security blanket.

Grilli faced the Reds once in the June series, striking out Zack Cozart, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in order.

Eighth-inning pitcher Mark Melancon (28, RH) has been virtually as valuable as Grilli to the Pirates. His ERA is 1.05 and FIP is 1.71. Melancon’s strikeout rate is 10.0/9 innings and his walk-rate is even lower than Grilli’s. He’s allowed one home run this year, to Joey Votto back in April. Melancon has given up runs in only four 0f his 35 appearances. He came to Pittsburgh via the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox, all stops where he was at some point the “closer of the future.”

With Grilli and Melancon so dominant, the Pirates won’t match-up lefties with the Reds’ left-handed bats in the last two innings. Prior to the eighth, look for Justin Wilson (25, LH) in high leverage situations.