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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

We are still waiting for the Mets to play some really great baseball for the first time since their 11-game winning streak made us all (okay, some of us) believers back in April. Since, then, the Mets have been mediocre, but some fans have been acting like the end is already upon us.

That's not the case, as New York just earned a split with the best team in the National League. Yes, the Mets were vastly outscored during that four-game set with St. Louis, but only nerds care about run differential, right? Besides, the key to success is just like Keith says: play .500 against the first division teams and kick the bad teams in the fanny.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Mets have a chance to put some wins together with series against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before they finally get a day off on Thursday.

Gung ho for Jung-ho

The Pirates have struggled on offense this season, and that has led to an 18-22 record for a team that is expected to once again be in the thick of the National League postseason hunt. Pittsburgh is one of six senior circuit squads with a team OPS below .700 (the Mets are even worse!), but maybe that can turn that around with the continued hot play of Korean import Jung-ho Kang.

I'm still not completely sure how to pronounce Kang's name, but I do remember that the Mets were considered a good fit for him over the winter. It was a surprise when Pittsburgh won the bidding due to the presence of incumbent shortstop Jordy Mercer, but Mercer has hit .171/.225/.198 this year while Kang has been a revelation with his .313/.378/.450 in 90 plate appearances.

The batting average is probably going to drop a bit due to a 19-percent strikeout rate and .371 BABIP, but if Kang continues to supply decent power and good defense, he could be Pittsburgh's regular shortstop for the remainder of the campaign.

The struggling Pirate stars

So shortstop isn't a problem for now, but the Buccos are still dealing with sub-optimal production from everyone else in the order not named Starling Marte. One of those guys is superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who was rumored to be limited by his knee injury, but he appears to be turning his season around lately.

After a dreadful April, McCutchen is finding his power stroke again with three of his five total home runs coming in the past 10 days. It's very encouraging to see that he is striking out even less often than he did last year (15 percent) while keeping his walk rate just above 10 percent. The early slump had a lot do with big drops in BABIP and isolated power, but it sure looks like McCutchen is hitting the ball hard again, so the Mets should proceed with caution.

Someone who might not bounce back from early season malaise is Josh Harrison. Last year's breakout star went from being a career one-win player to being worth five wins in 2014 alone, but Harrison is having trouble recreating the magic in 2015. His walk rate of four percent was already questionable, but now it has shrunk to below three, and that doesn't help at all when you consider a 76-point decrease in BABIP.

Harrison is still a good contract hitter with a strikeout rate below 15 percent, but with his minuscule walk rate and modest power, he's looking more like a good utility player this year than the All-Star infielder who played for the Pirates last year.

Cole and Burnett and pray for cannonballs

Pittsbrugh's rotation has been healthy this season, but the seas have been rough when Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett aren't on the mound. The other three starters all have ERAs above 4.00, and that's not good enough when your team is having issues getting runs across the plate. Francisco Liriano has been great for the Pirates since they picked him up off the scrap heap prior to the 2013 campaign, but he's having trouble keeping the ball on the ground and has already allowed six home runs this year after letting up just 13 in 2014.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Pirates Probable Starter
May 22, 2015 7:05 PM SNY Noah Syndergaard Gerrit Cole
May 23, 2015 4:05 PM SNY Matt Harvey A.J. Burnett
May 24, 2015 1:35 PM SNY Jon Niese Francisco Liriano

Meanwhile, Vance Worley has been unable to miss many bats at all (just 5.27 strikeouts per nine), while Jeff Locke has good enough strikeout and ground ball rates to be a decent pitcher if either his low strand rate or high BABIP would turn around. Until that happens, Cole and Burnett will carry forth the Jolly Roger for Pittsburgh.

Cole has done everything you would want a young pitcher to do following a promising sophomore season like the one he had last year. The first overall pick of the 2011 Draft has boosted his strikeout rate to 9.80 per nine, shrunk his walk rate to 2.40 per nine, increased his ground ball rate, and decreased his home run rate. All that has led to a 2.40 ERA and 2.41 FIP. This freight train does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon, and it will be fun to see if Noah Syndergaard can keep pace with Cole tonight.

Like Liriano, Burnett is a left-for-dead veteran whom the Buccos have gotten a lot of mileage out of. Even after posting a 4.59 ERA with Philadelphia last season, the right-hander is back and as good as ever with Pittsburgh in 2015. His 1.38 ERA isn't totally for real, but Burnett has managed to keep his walk rate down to around three per nine this year after it slipped above four with the Phillies. A high strand rate is responsible for making him look like a Cy Young candidate, but the 38-year-old is still getting enough strikeouts and ground ball to be effective even when he comes back to Earth, which will hopefully happen against Matt Harvey on Saturday.

Prediction: Mets take two out of three.

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