The Pirates upcoming 19 games might be the most interesting stretch of games I've ever experienced in 40+ years of following the team. This stretch against five of the other six contenders for National League playoff spots is an extended run of can't-miss games that I don't ever remember happening. The Pirates currently find themselves 5.5 games behind the NL Central leading Cardinals with 58 games to go. The next three weeks will most likely determine if the Bucs have any chance at catching the Redbirds and how they'll stack up in the wild card race. Let's look at the matchups (check back often as I will keep updating this post with results and expanded pitching reports):
Chicago Cubs (57-47) Aug 3-5 at PNC Park
The Pirates open a three-game series tonight against the Cubs, the start of a six-game homestand. The Cubs are coming off a stretch of 20 straight games against teams below .500 in which they only went 11-9 and got no-hit for the first time in 50 years. The Cubs are 9.5 back of the Cards, 4 back of the Pirates and tied with the Giants for the 2nd wildcard spot. Kris Bryant was pulled in the fifth inning of yesterday's game, but I expect him to be available tonight.
Monday: Jon Lester (game log) vs. Francisco Liriano (game log)
Jon Lester in July was what the Cubs signed up for when the gave him a 6-year, $155 million deal this past offseason. Lester had his best outing as a Cub last time out against the Rockies posting a season-high 14 strikeouts while going a season-high eight innings. He's went at least seven innings in each of his six July starts, giving up more than two runs only once. He recorded 50 strikeouts in 43.1 innings while allowing one home run.
I think Francisco Liriano is one of the two or three most-underrated starting pitchers in the game. The Pirates have won each of his last six starts and he hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of them. Since joining the Pirates in 2013 Liriano leads all major league pitchers in swinging strike %, (Check out the list) and he's right near the top this year. As always Liriano's issues are with command, but he is posting close to a career-best BB/9 this year. He has given up 8 home runs in 66 2/3 innings at PNC Park.
Must-See Rating: *****
Tuesday: Jake Arrieta (game log) vs. J.A. Happ (game log)
Arrieta is another one of those starters, like Liriano and Lance Lynn, who falls into the most-underrated category. Barring injury he's going to post career-bests in all the counting stats and he should better last year's 9th place finish in this year's Cy Young voting. In his last eight starts he has a 1.53 ERA and two complete games, along with 58 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings.
Happ will be making his Pirates debut in place of an injured A.J. Burnett. It's hard to understate how bad Happ has been lately. In his last ten outings with the Mariners, nine starts and a one-inning relief appearance, he's been a disaster: 43 1/3 IP, 54 H, 18 BB, 33K, 7 HR, 6.65 ERA, .854 OPS-against. He has failed to go more than four innings in three of his last four starts. The Pirates are obviously hoping he can gain his early-season form. In his first 11 starts he had a 3.04 ERA and struck out 75 batters in 71 innings, while walking only 14.
Must-See Rating: **** due to Happ's debut
Wednesday: Dan Haren (game log) vs. Jeff Locke (game log)
The soon-to-be 35-year old Haren will be making his Cubs debut. Haren pitched reasonable well for the Marlins this year but his K/9 numbers have dropped off considerably. He certainly is a better option than Happ and he doesn't walk anybody, but he's gone between 5 2/3 and 6 1/3 in each of his last nine outings, so the bullpen is sure to get some work.
Quietly Jeff Locke has been the Pirates third-best starter over the last two months. Like Charlie Morton, Locke is maddeningly frustrating because of his inconsistency. After throwing eight scoreless innings while allowing only two hits on July 4th, Locke has only managed to go five innings in three of his last four starts while walking three batters in each of those truncated outings.
Must-See Rating: *** this might be the least interesting pitching matchup of the 19.
Los Angeles Dodgers Aug 7-9 at PNC Park (Pirates miss Greinke)
The Pirates miss Greinke, but Friday night is sure to be one of the most exciting nights of the year at PNC Park.
Fri: Kershaw vs. Cole
Sat: Latos vs. Morton
Sun: Wood vs. Liriano
St. Louis Cardinals Aug 11-13 at Busch
It's the Cardinals, what else needs to be said. The first of nine remaining between the two teams.
Tues: Happ vs. Martinez
Wed: Locke vs. Wacha
Thurs: Cole vs. Lynn
New York Mets Aug 14-16 at Citi Field (Pirates miss deGrom and Syndergaard)
The Pirates appear to get luck with how the Mets rotation falls, but this is a different team than the one the Pirates swept at PNC earlier this season.
Fri: Morton vs. Colon
Sat: Liriano vs. Niese
Sun: Happ vs. Harvey
Arizona Diamondbacks Aug 17-19 at PNC Park
The Pirates get a breather?
San Francisco Giants Aug 20-23 at PNC Park
The World Champs are sure to be seeking revenge after the Bucs swept them in San Fran.