Finding Treasure or Walking the Plank?

The Cardinals head to PNC Park but what they find there might not meet their expectations.

A weekend in Pittsburgh is usually a nice, relaxing time for a ball club. The park is beautiful and the competition isn’t typically fierce. After all, the only say people expected the Pirates to have in the NL Central race was seeing which divisional rival beat them the most.

Early returns being worth what they are, it’s too soon to say whether Pittsburgh is this year’s upstart contender or another case of a strong April that fades by June. What we do know is they are only 1/2 a game behind the Cardinals and a leg up on Cincinnati and Chicago. Starting today, we’ll get to find out how.

The Last Time We Met….

It’s the first time for these teams to tangle in 2021 but they obviously have a rich history. I remember when Albert Pujols just used to destroy PNC Park when it was a new place, for instance, and the Patron Pitcher Tyler Lyons got the win there in September of 2015, clinching the division.

The more recent history of these two teams is a little less remarkable. The last time they saw each other was a five game set in the Steel City September 17-20 of 2020. The Cards dropped the opener 5-1, highlighted by Gregory Polanco hitting a three-run shot off of Austin Gomber. St. Louis went to take the next four, including both ends of a doubleheader a day later. However, the only starting pitcher that took home a win was Jack Flaherty in the finale, as the Cardinals often capitalized on a weaker Pirates bullpen to get runs.

The Opponent

The “get to the bullpen” approach might not work this time around, because the Pirates have the best bullpen ERA in the National League right now. Their closer, Richard Rodriguez, has allowed one hit in 10.1 innings so far this season while striking out a batter per inning. Kyle Crick has a similar mark, allowing one hit in nine frames. Sam Howard has a 1.80 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 10 innings.

Their starters have been less impressive (26th in the majors in ERA, 29th in WHIP) but there seems to be a pretty strong dichotomy between the good and the bad starters.

As for the offense, Ke’Bryan Hayes has been out since the second game of the season and while he’s making good progress, it seems unlikely St. Louis will see him this time around. The Pirates have a team offensive slash line similar to the Cardinals, though they don’t have as many home runs. Polanco is still a Pirate, though, and he always seems to sting the Cards in one way or another.

The Mound Men

Friday: John Gant (1-2, 2.25 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 5.73 xERA) vs. JT Brubaker (2-1, 2.01 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 3.58 xERA)

Saturday: Jack Flaherty (4-0, 3.18 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 4.36 xERA) vs. Trevor Cahill (1-2, 7.11 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 4.63 xERA)

Sunday: TBD vs. TBD

xERA courtesy of FanGraphs

There’s a good chance the Cardinals will see the two best starters the Pirates have had in the early going in Brubaker and Tyler Anderson (2-2, 3.38 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 4.72 xERA), who would seem to be on schedule to go Sunday. Brubaker made his debut last season against the Cardinals, throwing two scoreless innings in the first Pirates victory of the year. He moved into the starting rotation in his third major league appearance and hasn’t left it even as he’s hit some bumps in the road. Those bumps have smoothed some in 2021 and last time out he allowed just two runs in seven innings to the Twins.

St. Louis will go from a relative youngster to an old veteran when they move on to Cahill on Saturday. Cahill made his debut in 2009 and the Pirates are his ninth team (and he was in Oakland twice). Cahill has an off-on pattern, giving up seven runs each in his first and third starts while allowing just one each in his second and fourth. The Cards saw him last in 2017 when he was a member of the Royals. He didn’t make it through the third in that game, walking five while allowing three earned runs before getting bailed out by his bullpen.

If Anderson does go in the finale, the Cards will hope it goes like the last time he started against them. That was back in 2018 when he was a member of the Colorado Rockies and he allowed six runs in two-thirds of an inning. Tyler O’Neill had a two-run homer and Matt Carpenter had two doubles off of him before he left for the day. In fairness, Anderson pitched in St. Louis a couple of weeks before that and fared better though he still allowed four runs in six.

In case you are wondering, Jack Flaherty is 4-1 with a 1.45 ERA in PNC Park. Also, Adam Wainwright was scheduled to pitch Sunday but has been placed on the COVID-19 IL due to a family member testing positive. Since he’s vaccinated, he should be good to go by Monday or Tuesday. I would guess Carlos Martinez will make that start, but I haven’t seen anything officially stating that.

The Hot Seat

Matt Carpenter has slid out of this given his limited playing time and that pinch-hit home run on Thursday sure didn’t hurt either. Andrew Miller might have gotten a shot here, since he undid most of Carpenter’s work immediately afterwards, but Thursday night the team put him on the 10-day IL and out of sight, out of mind.

I think Justin Williams probably is here for right now. Williams has struggled both at the plate and in the field over the last few weeks. Part of the reason we saw Tommy Edman range all the way to mid-right field from second on Thursday was, in my mind, because some of those around Williams aren’t sure what he’ll get to or what he’ll drop. He’s hitting .154 over the last night games and that includes his two-hit night when the Cardinals scored a ton in Washington. Twelve strikeouts in 30 AB doesn’t inspire confidence either. With Harrison Bader activated off the injured list Thursday night, it would seem Williams’s opportunities are going to shrink and I would not be surprised that, when the need arises, the Cardinals capitalize on that extra option year he was granted.

Assorted Crudités

I know we just saw him with the Phillies, but it’s still a little strange to go to Pittsburgh and not have Andrew McCutchen waiting in center field.

The Pirates just split a two-game set with the Royals, but before that had won four of their last five series, with the fifth a four-game series that they split against San Diego. Last year the Pirates were 7-17 after 24 games, but you don’t have to go back far to find the last time they were at .500 at this mark. They were also 12-12 in 2019, when they finished 69-93.

Dylan Carlson went 0-4 on Thursday, only his second game without a hit since moving into the second spot. He’s still hitting .370 in that spot though the power hasn’t been there.

Random Links

Currently listening to: Chirps 104 (Pitching Makes Perfect)

Haven’t gotten far into this but Alex and Tara are always awesome and I look forward to getting to the Xavier Scruggs interview.

Just finished: Seeing Red 5

It’s the first time I’ve been able to listen since Will and Bernie got back together and it’s always entertaining. Not sure about that new theme song, though.

Reading: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendency Book II: Greater Good.

Timothy Zahn has written a lot of Thrawn books, both in the old canon now called Legends and the current Disney canon. They are all outstanding and there’s a reason Thrawn survived the purge and jumped into the new history in Star Wars Rebels. This trilogy tells his story from before he was found by the Empire and, as always, is quite enjoyable.