When the Mets last saw the Pirates in late May, the teams were heading in different directions. New York was scuffling, but still riding the high of April's 11-game winning streak. Pittsburgh was reeling from a rough start to the month, but was about to take off on a seven-game streak that would lead straight to Wild Card contention.
That run would begin with a sweep of the Mets. Pittsburgh cruised with wins of 4-1, 8-2, and 9-1 and went on to dominate June and July. The Pirates entered the All-Star break 20 games over .500 and looking like they could overtake St. Louis for the lead in the National League Central.
The Mets recovered from the Pittsburgh sweep with three straight wins at home over Philadelphia, but that would not lead to an extended run. Instead, New York fell below .500 with a seven-game skid in June before rebounding with a solid west coast swing and a sweep of Arizona before the break.
The Pittsburgh offense, now with more Kang
Both teams are playing well right now, and that's going to make this series one of the most watched by baseball fans this weekend. A lot of that has to do with the changes that both clubs made around the trade deadline. We know the Mets got better by adding Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, and Yoenis Cespedes (although it was just as important for Lucas Duda and Curtis Granderson to get hot).
The Pirates added Aramis Ramirez to counter a thumb injury to starting third baseman Josh Harrison that has him out for a little while longer (he started playing rehab games this week). Although Ramirez heated up at the end of his Brewers tenure and led us to believe that he could contribute to a contender down the stretch, he hasn't hit for much power in Pittsburgh since he got there. After batting .288/.344/.413 in July, Ramirez is at .303/.343/.333 for August, but he's on a seven-game hitting streak and ought to hit for more power soon. He's getting ready to switch to first base and platoon with lefty slugger Pedro Alvarez once Harrison fully recovers.
The real hero for Pittsburgh (besides the always excellent Andrew McCutchen), is someone they made a move for way back before the season started. That would be Jung Ho Kang, the Korean shortstop whose power wasn't supposed to make a big impact in the big leagues. Instead, he's hitting .292/.366/.452 with nine home runs and solid defense. Kang is second on the Pirates behind McCutchen in WAR and has been invaluable after injuries to both Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer. With the way Kang has hit the balll, it's hard to see Mercer as anything more than a utility infielder for the rest of the campaign.
The Pittsburgh offense, which is fourth in the National League in runs per game, is also boosted by a surprisingly effective season from catcher Francisco Cervelli (.300/.367/.423). The 29-year-old was a backup with the Yankees due to the presence of Brian McCann, but with the way Cervelli has played behind the plate this year, it's clear he's a starting-caliber player.
Gregory Polanco is starting to heat up in the leadoff spot after a pretty disappointing start to the season. The sophomore outfielder hit home runs in back-to-back games earlier this month and now has a 1.043 OPS in August. That's a great sign for the 23-year-old who is still trying to build off of a rookie campaign that didn't show his full potential.
Aces in the front, scrubs in the back, sharks in the pen
The Pirates can hit the crap out of the ball, and on paper they are a complete team. To go with a deep offense that pretty soon won't have to play Sean Rodriguez as much, Pittsburgh boasts a 3.25 team ERA. Still, if I had to pick a weakness for this team, it would be the starting rotation that has been led by terrific seasons from the up-and-coming Gerrit Cole (2.48 ERA, 2.67 FIP) and the won't-go-away Francisco Liriano (3.19 ERA, 3.09 FIP).
A.J. Burnett was having a magical comeback season thanks to reduced walk and home run rates compared to his 2014 sabbatical in Philadelphia, but now his season is in jeopardy due to an elbow injury. To replace him, the Buccos traded for Seattle's J.A. Happ, but a 4.78 ERA (4.00 FIP) is hardly inspiring, even when the lefty is pitching with much more control than he did for Toronto last year.
|Date||Time||Television||Pirates Probable Starter||Mets Probable Starter|
|August 14, 2015||7:10 PM||SNY||J.A. Happ||Bartolo Colon|
|August 15, 2015||7:10 PM||PIX 11||Charlie Morton||Jon Niese|
|August 16, 2015||1:10 PM||SNY, TBS||Jeff Locke||Matt Harvey|
The rest of the back of the rotation is also pitching in Queens this weekend. Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton have together accounted for one-and-a-half WAR this season, with Locke striking out a few more batters and Morton getting a few more ground balls (the latter's 59-percent ground ball rate is seriously impressive). Morton's worm-burning ability aside, there isn't much that sets this weekend's trio of starters apart from those on one of Keith's "second-division" clubs, and the Mets ought to take advantage.
Bartolo Colon may be a wild card capable of blowing up in every other start, but Jon Niese and Matt Harvey are pitching as well as they have all season. As long as New York's bats continue to connect, the home team should be favored in this series.
Pittsburgh still has a better bullpen, though. Already a tough nut to crack thanks to the efforts of closer Mark Melancon (1.53 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 60 percent ground ball rate) and left-handed set-up man Tony Watson (2.41 ERA, 2.70 FIP), the "Shark Tank" got stronger when it added Joakim Soria from Detroit on July 30. The artist formerly known as the Mexicutioner is having a rough FIP year (4.65 despite a 2.89 ERA), but if he's able to get his home runs down below one allowed per nine, he'll be another strong arm for manager Clint Hurdle to deploy in close games.
Prediction: Mets win two of three.
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