By Jared Lankes
The Pirates continued playing well, capturing 3 of 4 from the division-rival Cardinals to pull to within a half a game of them. They have also closed the gap on the Cubs to less than 10 after it was 15 when the Pirates left Chicago just a few short weeks ago. Oh by the way, the Cubs are the next opponent. The Cubs come into PNC Park, and they have dominated the Pirates this season. However, they have looked more vulnerable lately, so there’s hope.
Friday: Jake Arrieta (12-3 2.33 ERA) vs Francisco Liriano (5-8 5.38 ERA) 7:05 ET
While Arrieta’s numbers still look otherworldly in nature, he’s been pretty bad lately. Some figure the problem to be him starting to try too hard and his pitching motion suffering because of it. Pirates can only hope that the problems for him continue for at least one more start. For the Pirates, it’s another stop on the Liriano frustration station. While his last start didn’t tickle the frustration meter’s max level, it still got pretty high up there. Lack of chases and a high walk rate are still contributing to so many problems for him. He has really struggled against the Cubs this season as well after coming in with great numbers.
Saturday: Jon Lester (9-4 2.67 ERA) vs Chad Kuhl (1-0 4.09 ERA) 7:15 ET
Chad Kuhl has left quite an impression on the fans of the Pirates. Outdueling Clayton Kershaw and then trading blows with Sonny Gray. He’s given the Pirates two important outings when they’ve needed it the most. For the Cubs, it’s Jon Lester. He got humiliated in his last start after a fabulous June that landed him pitcher of the month honors. I fully expect the All-Star Lester to get it right. However, that won’t stop the Pirates from trying to steal off him. This is especially so because his beloved personal catcher David Ross has hit the disabled list. Wilson Contreras will catch Lester in his place. We will see how that works out. Watch out for Starling Marte and Josh Harrison, mainly, to take bases if they can reach. It actually might be a good day to put in Adam Frazier in RF over Gregory Polanco. Frazier hits lefties very well and Polanco hobbling makes a difference. Frazier would add another base stealer to the mix, which Polanco can’t do when hobbled (well, against Lester it might be possible).
Sunday: John Lackey (7-5 3.50 ERA) vs Jon Niese (7-6 4.87 ERA) 1:35 ET
John Lackey has been a very good veteran presence for the Cubs rotation this year. A pitcher that has always made less money than he could’ve, Lackey is working on yet another good season. For a guy of his age to pitch at the level he is is truly terrific. We will see if the Pirates can figure him out. Meanwhile, the Pirates bring Jon Niese to the mound. Niese has been the subject of a minor knee issue and even some trade rumors all within the past couple of days. Niese pitched effectively on Monday, in terms of his runs allowed at least. He looked very mediocre in spite of that. I have a hard time believing this is the last start for Niese as a Pirate but if it is, he can do the team a favor by beating the Cubs on his way out.
This is a pretty big series for the Pirates. I wouldn’t call it “must win”. I would rather call it “don’t get swept and you’re good”. Pirates need to win one in this series to go into the break above .500 while the worst record they can have at the break is 44-45. However, they would hate to get swept here and go into the break with 4 straight losses after winning 7 in a row. Pirates have to find a way to get to the Cubs while they are struggling, even if it means only winning one in the series. Of course, winning or even sweeping the series would be wonderful.