The Mets open up their final home series of the 2012 season tonight, a four-game set with the plummeting Pittsburgh Pirates. In the thick of the pennant race through July, the Pirates' season came tumbling down in August and September and now they're struggling to keep their heads above .500 with a 75-77 record coming into this series. A losing season would be the Pirates' 20th in a row, a tough pill to swallow in a season that seemed to have so much potential two months ago. To give us a little preview of the Pirates, I sent some questions to Charlie Wilmoth of SB Nation's Bucs Dugout and he graciously answered them for us below.
Amazin' Avenue: What has been the biggest culprit for the Pirates' second consecutive second half demise?
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Bucs Dugout: God.
AA: Do you think Andrew McCutchen wins this year's NL MVP award?
BD: No. The Pirates were 16 games above .500 at one point, and now they're headed for a 20th straight losing season. McCutchen has played well recently, but not as well as he did earlier this summer. I can't believe voters will look kindly upon either of those things.
AA: What area(s) do the Pirates have to look to improve this offseason to help take the team to the next level and how do you think they go about improving?
BD: I think they may consider firing general manager Neal Huntington, as well as assistant GMs Greg Smith and Kyle Stark (who are their big scouting and player-development guys, respectively). Beyond that, the usual mechanism for offseason improvement it the free agent market, and the Pirates have shown over and over that they're not really able to get good players there, mainly because they don't have much money and because players who have choices don't want to come to Pittsburgh. If they can pull off another A.J. Burnett-type trade, though, that would be great. They'll need a catcher and starting pitching.
AA: When the Mets last faced the Pirates, James McDonald looked like he'd taken a huge step forward into a potential ace but his season has taken a turn for the worse since then. What's changed for him the last three months?
BD: Early in the year, he had zip on his fastball, and he had two very good breaking pitches that he used to keep hitters off-guard. Now he doesn't throw quite as hard, his command as awful, and his breaking stuff has turned to mush. To call it apples and oranges would be misleading, because both those things taste good.
AA: Which Pirates players have been playing well over the last few weeks and which players have been struggling?
BD: McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez have played well. Jose Tabata has looked good since returning from a demotion earlier in the year. Clint Barmes has actually hit a bit. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Kevin Correia have all pitched well. Many of the other players have been terrible. The bullpen has been a disaster.
Thanks to Charlie for giving us a preview of the Pirates! Here are the pitching matchups for this series: