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Mets head to Pittsburgh for some swashbuckling adventures with Jon Niese and the Pittsburgh Pirates

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Can this new, scrappy Mets lineup fend off a nasty bunch of Buccaneers?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Before it was destroyed by Jose Fernandez on Sunday afternoon, the Mets' injury-riddled offense was starting to show signs of life during the weekend series in Miami. Wilmer Flores, a player the Mets will be leaning on with David Wright out of the lineup, notched multiple hits and a walk in each of the first two games of the series. Similarly, that other reserve infielder Matt Reynolds came up with a huge pinch-hit RBI single to create his first big Mets moment.

Those are the kinds of performances the Mets need in order to promote offensive balance now that the bottom third of the lineup is filled with backup players. Nobody needs to be a hero like Yoenis Cespedes was last summer, but everyone needs to contribute a little bit. If that happens, this team can do amazing things like come from behind and score without hitting a home run.

Pretty cool, right? The news gets even better with the good ship Mets approaching Pittsburgh and a struggling Pirates team. Although the Buccos are a serious postseason contender as they've been for the past few seasons, they've won just one game in each of their past three series due to a decrease in scoring that their mediocre pitching staff hasn't been able to cover for.

Mediocre pitching means more opportunities for these Mets to score runs, and that's something they must take advantage of, because this Pittsburgh offense is still among the best in the National League, even with Andrew McCutchen not performing up to his standard.

The Pirate captain is hitting an uncharacteristic .250/.333/.435, which is still really good for a center fielder, but not for one who is used to being in the MVP conversation. McCutchen's strikeout rate is up four percent over last year, and his BABIP is down around mortal levels despite being well above .330 for the past four years. The good news is that McCutchen is hitting just as many line drives as he did last year, and the drop in BABIP may be due to a drop in ground ball rate. That, in turn, could lead to more home runs for the 29-year-old veteran.

There's a good chance that McCutchen turns out to be fine, which would be great for a Pittsburgh offense that is more than just a one-man show. Gregory Polanco, in just his third year in the majors, is becoming a star in his own right. Formerly known as a contact-and-speed guy, the right fielder is walking more this year and has doubled 2015's isolated power. With nine home runs already and a .559 slugging percentage, Polanco is looking like a beast in 2016.

Another very dangerous Pittsburgh batter is Jung Ho Kang, the Korean third baseman who burst onto the scene last year and hit .287/.355/.461 despite very modest expectations. 2015 ended bitterly, however, when he injured his knee in Pittsburgh's lone postseason game. In 2016, Kang is back with a vengeance, as well as eight home runs in his first 87 plate appearance since returning to action on May 6. He's not expected to hit for this kind of power all season long, but Kang is showing no signs of slowing down yet with extra-base hits in his last four games.

Although John Jaso isn't a catcher anymore, his excellent contact skills and ability to play first base competently give the Pirates a bona fide leadoff hitter who won't make nearly as many outs as their former, more powerful first baseman Pedro Alvarez. Jaso and Alvarez may be completely different hitters, but both are guys who Pittsburgh has tried to keep away from left-handed pitching. With platoon partner David Freese nursing an injured hand, the surprisingly effective Sean Rodriguez could see some action against Steven Matz this week. Rodriguez still strikes out too much to be a regular, but when he has made contact this year, the ball has flown off his bat.

Someone else who could see more playing time than expected in this series is journeyman catcher Chris Stewart, who has been filling in for starter Francisco Cervelli. The Venezuelan backstop is similar to Jaso in that he's a very tough out (.366 on-base percentage) despite not hitting for a ton of power. He's been out since Thursday with an injured foot, and if he continues to miss time, Mets pitchers ought to have an easier time handling Stewart.

Pitching probables

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Pirates Probable Starter
June 6, 2016 7:05 PM SNY Steven Matz Jonathon Niese
June 7, 2016 7:05 PM SNY, ESPN2 Jacob deGrom Juan Nicasio
June 8, 2016 7:05 PM SNY Noah Syndergaard Francisco Liriano

Jonathon Niese

Important stats: 64.0 IP, 47 K, 22 BB, 12 HR, 4.36 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 1.45 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (89 mph), two-seam fastball (89 mph), cutter (86 mph) changeup (82 mph)

Niese will be making his first ever start against the team that drafted him way back in 2005. As far as former Mets go, the veteran lefty probably isn't being missed as much as Daniel Murphy, but you never know when New York is going to need a spare left-handed pitcher. Niese has gotten his stint in Pittsburgh off to a lousy start, walking three batters per nine innings this year with a strikeout rate only slightly better than last season's. However, he's getting plenty of ground balls and is not going to continue allowing home runs on an insane 21 percent of his fly balls. That's probably why Niese has started to turn things around with fewer than three runs allowed in his last four starts.

Mets opponent: It's going to be southpaw vs. southpaw as Matz takes the hill opposite Niese on Monday night. The only left in New York's rotation had a surprisingly mediocre performance in his last appearance against the White Sox. He allowed three runs, only struck out three batters, and failed to make it out of the sixth inning. The good news is that Matz had done better with all those figures in his previous seven outings. We're going to expect him to return to excellence quickly, but that might not be the case against a strong Pittsburgh lineup that is predominantly right-handed.

Juan Nicasio

Important stats: 53.0 IP, 51 K, 21 BB, 8 HR, 4.75 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 1.40 WHIP

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

The veteran from the Colorado organization spent last season pitching out of the bullpen for the Dodgers while posting career highs in strikeout rate but also walk rate. Now, Nicasio is back in a starting rotation thanks to a stellar spring training performance (and a lack of pitching depth in Pittsburgh) that forced him into the conversation. Like most stellar spring training performances, Nicasio's hasn't translated in regular season greatness. Now that he's facing major league hitters during every start, he has stopped striking out 24 batters every 15 innings like he did in March. His walk rate is around nine percent, and Nicasio has allowed at least three runs in his last five games.

Mets opponent: Jacob deGrom is finally back to pitching like the guy who lit the National League on fire last year with 205 strikeouts and a 0.98 WHIP. Not only does he have 24 total strikeouts in his last three games, but the fabulous right-hander has seen his pitch count ramped up as the season wears on. After failing to reach 100 pitches during his first four starts of the year, he's thrown at least that many in his last five outings. Wednesday against the White Sox was deGrom's finest performance of the season with seven innings, 10 strikeouts, and just one run allowed.

Francisco Liriano

Important stats: 61.2 IP, 60 K, 38 BB, 12 HR, 5.25 ERA, 5.65 FIP, 1.64 WHIP

Favorite pitches: two-seam fastball (92 mph), slider (85 mph), changeup (85 mph)

Like Niese, Liriano is a ground-ball pitcher who is allowing a bunch of home runs this year. The former Minnesota stud can't blame everything on bad luck, though. He has done himself no favors with more than five walks per nine innings. The problem is not getting any better, either, with Liriano walking at least four batters in his last three games. In his last two, he's allowed a total of 12 runs, and if the veteran southpaw doesn't turn things around soon, calls for top prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow to enter the rotation are only going to grow louder.

Mets opponent: During last Friday's start in Miami, Noah Syndergaard struck out nine batters and walked one in seven innings while leading the Mets to a 6-2 victory. And we were all kind of disappointed that he didn't put on an even better show. That's the kind of season it's been for the intimidating right-hander. The only thing left for him to do is to finish a game on his own, but Terry Collins isn't likely to oblige due to youth and pitch counts and the like. Mets fans will just have to settle for continued excellence. What a drag.

Bullpens

The Pittsburgh rotation may be due for an upheaval, but the bullpen is still in good hands thanks in part to veteran closer Mark Melancon. Even though he has 17 saves with a 1.93 ERA this year, it's worth asking how long the 31-year-old can remain one of baseball's top relief pitchers. His strikeout rate has dipped during the past two years to the point where it's now at six batters per nine innings. Perhaps more alarming is that Melancon isn't getting the worm-burners he used to. His ground ball rate is down to 41 percent after being above 57 percent for three straight seasons. The good news is that set-up man Neftali Feliz has bounced back from a struggle-filled 2015 and appears back in top form with 24 strikeouts and only three walks in 20.2 innings. The former Texas reliever signed with Pittsburgh for one year and $3.9 million over the winter and is looking like quite a bargain.

For the Mets, Hansel Robles continues to struggle after he got the season off to such a great start. On Saturday in Miami, the right-hander struck out the first two batters he faced but then gave up consecutive walks and an RBI double that forced him out of the game before he could finish the sixth inning. That poor outing follows up recent ones versus the Dodgers and White Sox in which Robles gave up multiple runs via the home run. With a ground ball rate of just 28 percent, the Mets' secondary set-up man has got to get better at limiting hard contact if he's going to remain an important part of the bullpen.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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