May 18, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez (51) looks on from the dugout against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Houston Astros won 4-2 in eleven innings. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pirates vs. Braves: Series Preview

April 21, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) prepares to bat in the on-deck circle against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“LET’S GO PIE-RETS!!”  (I’m sorry, this just doesn’t get old.  Should have dug up a picture of that little girl.) The Pittsburgh Pirates return to Turner Field tonight to begin a three game set with the Braves, the final three meetings of 2013 for these teams.  Let’s see what to look for:

 

OVERVIEW… and OFFENSE

The first lash-up of 2013 didn’t go so well for Atlanta. That time, a 12-2 Braves team swaggered into PNC Park, won the first one 6-4 (that was an Oso Blanco special)… and then were shut down. The Braves only scored 3 runs total for the rest of the 4-gamer and limped out of town on that strange and snowy road trip.

The (35-22) Pirates come in riding high: now actually ahead of the Braves (34-22) in record, winners of 18 of their last 24 ballgames. They swept the Cubs, took 2 of 3 from Milwaukee, and got 3 of 4 vs. Detroit before finally being slowed by the Reds (losing 2 of 3 this past weekend).

The Pirates are doing it by smoke and mirrors. While 13 games over .500, they only have a +22 run differential (contrast this with Atlanta’s +53 for 12 games up. They are 22nd in runs scored, 25th in batting average, 23rd in slugging, and 23rd in getting on base.

So how are they winning? In a word: Pitching.

The Pirates are second in baseball in staff ERA… and the bullpen is #1 (Atlanta is fourth and second, respectively).

The good news?  While their pitching is indeed holding up, the offense is hardly showing up at all lately: they were shut out twice over the weekend and scored two 1-0 victories over Detroit in the prior series. So twelve runs in their last seven games isn’t anything to crow about.
DEFENSE

Not a lot to say here – the Pirates are not butchers out there: steady, average-to-above average.  The weak links are Clint Barmes (6 errors) and Pedro Alvarez (9 errors). These guys account for half the team total. On the Braves, Dan Uggla has 8, Freddie Freeman 5, Justin Upton 4.  Andrelton Simmons – after being the last shortstop in baseball to commit an error, suddenly has 3 of them now. Say it ain’t so, Simba!

SPEED

This is noteworthy:  Andrew McCutchen has 14 steals, Starling Marte has 15. Got to keep these guys in the dugout and off the bases, since they also lead the team in runs scored (36 apiece – no one else is close).

 

On to the matchups…

 

April 3, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) reacts in the dugout against the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

MONDAY, JUNE 4, 7:10PM EDT
> A.J. Burnett RHP, 6’4″, 230 lbs. 36 years old, 3-5, 2.72 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
> Kris Medlen for Atlanta

We did not see Burnett in the first series, but he leads off tonight, still very happy to be out of New York City, it would seem. Ah, if only he had chosen Atlanta instead of the Yankees way back when.

Burnett is an Innings Eater. 190 in 2011, 202 in 2012, 76 already this year. He is going to give up a couple of runs here and there (1-3 runs in every start this year, excepting a no run 7-inning 1-hitter vs. the Cardinals on April 17th). He is striking out over 1 batter per inning, so watch out for that tonight… could get his first double-digit K night if we’re not careful.

Fun stat: Burnett is averaging OVER 100 pitches per start this year; 102.5 to be precise. That’s actually only good for 16th in the majors, I was surprised to find. 780 strikes, and 450 balls.

That said… Burnett will be very happy that Chipper (.366) is no longer on the team, but others have hit him very well, too: there are lots of gaudy averages all over the place. Oddly, the one who has seen him the most is B.J. Upton (44 ABs), yet he has only a .205 average against him (Jordan Schafer only has a .222, so BJ will likely start tonight).

Almost every other regular in the lineup has a .300-or-better average vs. Burnett. Whatever their approach has been: they need to keep it up. There is the potential for the Braves to light ‘er up tonight.

 

February 17, 2013; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jeff Locke (49) poses for photo day at Pirate City. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

TUESDAY, JUNE 5, 7:10PM EDT
> Jeff Locke LHP, 6’1″, 180 lbs. 25 years old, 5-1, 2.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
> Mike Minor – lefty vs. lefty

Locke did not get a decision during the first series, but he was the starter of that first game when the Braves broke a tie late. Locke gave up 4 earned that day and only struck out 3; not quite getting out of the 5th inning. That’s the good news. The bad is that Locke has been almost lock-down since mid May: 4 ER since May 9 and NONE since May 19… an active streak of 18.1 innings.

In 64 innings this year, he has 42 K’s, 26 walks, 1 balk, 3 wild pitches, and he’s hit 3. He is keeping the ball in the park (0.70 HR/9), and appears to be getting batters to avoid solid contact (.239 BABIP).

The Braves do not have a long history vs. Locke: Heyward has the maximum number of ABs against him (6, with 1 hit). Only Chris Johnson has as many as two hits off of him (2 in 3 ABs). They need to exercise great patience: that 2:1 K/BB ratio is pretty poor, and should be exploited. But if so, it could be a good night for ‘small ball.’

 

WEDNESDAY GETAWAY GAME, JUNE 6, 12:10PM EDT
> Wandy Rodriguez. LHP, 5’10″, 195 lbs. 34 years old, 6-3, 3.47 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
> Julio Teheran

I don’t like Wandy Rodriguez. I don’t mean personally, I just don’t like my team facing him. In April, Wandy was the first Pirates’ hurler to shut down the Braves… and it seems that the rest of the rotation learned from him. That April 19 meeting with Atlanta was easily his best start of 2013: 1 hit allowed over 7 innings, 5 K, Zero Walks, and no runs allowed. Brutal.

Wandy will give up the occasional homer, doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but has excellent control. He is averaging 5-1/2 innings per start, but that means nothing if he owns us like he did in April.

I guess the good news is that Jason Heyward and Gerald Laird hit Wandy pretty hard: .455 and .444 respectively. That might actually matter since it’s an early day game – watch for Laird to be in the lineup then (plus, McCann is 0 for 10).

Other than that… not a lot of pop against him. But given his numbers, this might be a game with 2 or 3 solo homers.  That could be enough.

 

THE VENUE

Atlanta is now 18-7 at home; Pittsburgh 14-11 on the road.  Let’s start strong.

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