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Can the New York Mets protect Citi Field from the plundering Pittsburgh Pirates?

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The Buccos arrive in Queens on a five-game losing streak.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Those scurvy sea dogs from Pittsburgh have been down on their luck lately. The club looked pretty healthy last week when we watched them sweep our Mets in a doubleheader, but the tide has changed quickly. The Pirates went on to lose to Colorado in a make-up game before being swept aside in a home series against their rivals from St. Louis.

If losing three in a row to the hated Cardinals wasn’t enough, the weary Buccos saw both members of the battery leave Friday’s game with injuries. First, staff ace Gerrit Cole was forced out in the third inning due to triceps tightness. Then, catcher Francisco Cervelli broke his hand. Fortunately, it appears that Cole will only miss one or two starts, but Cervelli could be in for a lengthy stay on the disabled list.

With backup catcher Chris Stewart having missed Sunday's game with a foot injury, the Mets could see a lot of the newly acquired journeyman Erik Kratz during this week’s series.

The three losses to St. Louis may have dealt a severe blow to Pittsburgh's postseason hopes, but a series against the struggling Mets could be just what they need to put wind back in their sails. After all, the Pirates still have more than enough offensive weapons to challenge the New York pitching staff. One guy in particular to watch out for this week is Starling Marte, the left fielder who has multiple hits in his last three games.

The last time these two clubs met, Gregory Polanco showed off his new power stroke by ripping two doubles against Noah Syndergaard and a third off of Jim Henderson. Polanco will be especially dangerous in this upcoming series because all three of the Mets’ starting pitchers are right-handed, and he's one of just two lefties in Pittsburgh's regular lineup.

Meanwhile, Andrew McCutchen will continue to try to get back on track. The veteran center fielder played pretty well against New York last week, but against St. Louis he went 1-for-14 with no walks and six strikeouts.

The Mets don’t have their own offense exactly where they want it, but at least Curtis Granderson has stepped up his game lately. Maybe something clicked when he hit that home run at PNC Park, because he followed that up with a heck of a series in Milwaukee. In four games, Granderson went 7-for-17 with two home runs, two walks, just one strikeout, and his first stolen base of the year.

The Queens faithful might not have been thrilled with the trade that brought Kelly Johnson to New York for the second straight season, especially since the front office parted with longtime prospect Akeel Morris to do so. The veteran infielder hadn’t been playing very well with Atlanta, but he appeared reinvigorated over the weekend with four hits and two walks in the first three games with his new squad.

It will be interesting to see how the Mets deal with the third base situation once Neil Walker returns to the lineup after missing most of the Milwaukee series with back tightness. Wilmer Flores collected six hits during the first two games of the set and could move into a platoon with Johnson going forward.

Pitching probables

Date Time Television Pirates Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
June 14, 2016 7:10 PM SNY TBD Jacob deGrom
June 15, 2016 7:10 PM SNY TBD Noah Syndergaard
June 16, 2016 7:10 PM SNY TBD Bartolo Colon

The Pirates' rotation is in an uncertain state right now thanks to Gerrit Cole's arm injury. He sounds incredibly unlikely to start against the Mets in this series, but the Pirates haven't decided whether or not to put him on the disabled list yet. Here are three pitchers that could start against the Mets, in no particular order.

Juan Nicasio

Important stats: 59.0 IP, 60 K, 25 BB, 9 HR, 5.34 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1.44 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (93 mph), slider (86 mph)

Nicasio looked pretty great against the Mets last Tuesday despite his mediocre performances in five previous starts. He was even worse in his one outing since then, but to be fair it was under unusual circumstances. With Cole having left due to injury early in Friday’s game, the Pirates were forced to use Nicasio out of the bullpen when the game reached the 12th inning. The right-hander gave up six runs in the frame to seal the game for St. Louis, so he’ll be looking to get back on track at Citi Field.

Jeff Locke

Important stats: 72.0 IP, 37 K, 27 BB, 11 HR, 5.38 ERA, 5.24 FIP, 1.43 WHIP

Favorite pitches: two-seam fastball (91 mph), changeup (82 mph)

With both Locke and Jon Niese on the pitching staff, you get the feeling that the Pirates enjoy soft-tossing southpaws with really low strikeout totals. Locke’s numbers would look a lot better if he wasn’t coming off of a disaster of an outing in Colorado that saw him give up 11 runs in four-and-two-thirds innings. At least you know he’s a team player, right? Anyway, his two starts before that against the Angels and Miami were successful, so maybe he can frustrate the Mets into grounding out to second base a lot.

Jameson Taillon

The Mets had the pleasure of being in the park for Taillon's first big league start, and the former first-round draft pick looked pretty good with three runs allowed in six innings.

Jacob deGrom

Getting back on track is exactly what Jacob deGrom has done during his last three starts, as he continues to resemble the dominant figure of 2015. With 19 strikeouts in his last two outings, the right-hander is up to eight strikeouts per nine innings for the season with a 2.97 FIP.

Noah Syndergaard

The Buccos didn’t appear too intimidated by Noah Syndergaard when he took the mound in Pittsburgh last Wednesday. They scored two runs against the tall right-hander while only striking out five times and even drew a pair of walks. It was the first time since May 6 that Syndergaard had walked more than one batter in a game. In today's age of dominant strikeout figures, it’s not Syndergaard’s powerful heat that’s most impressive about him. What sets him apart is the ability to control it masterfully.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon will be on the mound for New York in the series finale. His strikeout rate has shrunk alongside his ERA in recent weeks, as Big Sexy has now strung together four straight starts with fewer than four strikeouts and fewer than three runs allowed. Despite all the contact, Colon has done a good job keeping the ball in the park, and the BABIP against him is .299, right around league average. If he keeps up the solid play, the Mets are going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with Zack Wheeler.

Bullpens

Jared Hughes pitched against the Mets twice last week. He allowed one run in two innings and is an interesting case when it comes to relief pitchers and small sample sizes. Even though Hughes has a 3.18 ERA this season, that hides the fact that he has stunk in his 17 innings and should probably be used less often by manager Clint Hurdle until he cleans up his act. Hughes’ WHIP is 1.71 and he has more walks than strikeouts this year. He didn’t produce a ton of strikeouts in his successful 2014 and 2015 campaigns, but his insane ground ball rates of over 60 percent helped him outperform his FIP. This year, Hughes’s ground ball rate is down to 51 percent, and he could be in trouble if that doesn’t improve.

The Mets shook up their bullpen recently, exchanging Logan Verrett for Erik Goeddel. Both guys are right-handers who are pretty low on the totem poll, so the switch shouldn’t make too much of a difference, but Verrett was counted on to make a spot start here and there when the Mets needed him. Although he wasn’t bad as a reliever, the way the Baylor alum blew up during his last two starting opporunities probably made the Mets want to go in a different direction. Goeddel threw just one innings with the major league club this year before being sent down to Las Vegas, where he struck out 26 batters in 23.2 innings but also walked 13 men and allowed 15 runs. It looks like New York is chalking those figures up to the harsh Nevada pitching environment and hoping that Goeddel can repeat his 2015 performance, in which he threw for a 2.43 ERA and 2.47 FIP for the Mets in 33.1 innings.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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