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Consistency key for Pittsburgh Pirates heading into series with Cincinnati Reds

Pittsburgh Pirates closer Jason Grilli has already blown three saves, which exceeds his mark set last year (two) and matches his mark set in 2012.
Pittsburgh Pirates closer Jason Grilli has already blown three saves, which exceeds his mark set last year (two) and matches his mark set in 2012.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

All offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates had been searching for a bat to complement Gaby Sanchez at first base. On Friday, they finally struck a deal to bring Ike Davis, formerly of the New York Mets, to Pittsburgh. Davis contributed right away in his debut Saturday and has been solid so far in his short time in the lineup, going 3-for-9 with three runs scored in two games.

That's one less run scored than he had in 12 appearances with the Mets. Davis can bring the offense some much-needed production, working primarily against right-handers.

To this point in the season, consistency in the Pirates offense has been the weak point, however there was a different issue in the series with the Brewers. Despite losing three out of four games, Pittsburgh outscored Milwaukee 23-18 over the four-game stretch—largely due to an 11-2 beatdown Thursday night.

Still, the team posted seven runs Saturday in what was closer Jason Grilli's first of two blown saves in the series. On the year, Grilli now has three blown saves, which is already more than he had in 2013, and it matches his total in 2012.

As a whole, the team needs consistent production from the sum of its parts if it is to survive in the NL Central.

During this rugged stretch of games that includes the first 26 of the year against divisional opponents, the Pirates find themselves mired in a 3-9 rut over their last 12 games. The schedule isn't going to lighten up, so something is going to have to give.

Monday's matchup with the Cincinnati Reds is a nationally televised affair at 7:00 p.m., pitting Francisco Liriano (0-3, 3.96 ERA) against Mike Leake (2-1, 2.95).

Two of Liriano's four starts have qualified as quality starts, which puts him second on the staff, and yet, he is without a mark in the win column. The left-hander leads the rotation in strikeouts (28), but he is also tops in pitches per start (99.8). In Liriano's last start against the Reds, he yielded three runs on six hits, striking out seven and walking three while also taking the loss.

Leake has yet to throw less than 100 pitches in a start this year. While he possesses impressive numbers, his 0.89 WHIP is at or near the top of the list. In his last start against the Pirates, the right-hander went 6.2 innings and gave up three runs on five hits while striking out eight.

If you were asked before the season who would be the most impressive pitcher on the Pirates staff after nearly 20 games, Liriano would have been a safe bet. But offseason pickup Edinson Volquez has been the star of the young season.

Game 2, which will take place Tuesday at 7:05 p.m., showcases Volquez (1-0, 1.71) and Johnny Cueto (1-2, 1.50). In 21 innings, Volquez has allowed as many runs (four) as Liriano has in one start, a six-inning outing against the Cardinals April 5. Cueto makes his long-awaited return to PNC Park, but he pitched nine innings of shutout ball against the Pirates in his last outing, striking out 12.

The third game of the series gets underway Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. and features Charlie Morton (0-2, 4.32) and Alfredo Simon (2-1, 0.86). Morton has had a rough go of it since his first outing of the season in which he blanked the Cubs through six innings. In his last 19 innings, the 6-foot-5-inch right-hander has allowed 14 runs (12 earned) and 22 hits. Simon is currently at the opposite end of the spectrum, allowing three runs (two earned) in 21 innings so far. His 0.86 ERA leads the Reds rotation.

The finale of the four-game series concludes Thursday at 12:35 p.m. and pits Wandy Rodriguez (0-2, 7.65) against Tony Cingrani (1-2, 3.22).

Rodriguez has allowed 17 earned runs in 20 innings. He's surrendered more home runs (seven) than walks (six). That's just about all you need to know. The left-hander will look to build some sort of momentum in producing a quality outing against the Reds Thursday to get back on track.

His opposite number, Cingrani, has struggled with giving up free passes thus far. The left-hander has walked 13 batters in 22.1 innings, which is tops on the Reds and is third in the NL.

With the two teams separated by just a half-game, this series could serve as a key point in the season when determining positioning within the division and the league. Last year, the Pirates finished April 15-12 but will have to put together quite a run if they are to match that mark. Achieving those milestones established last season will be possible but only if some semblance of consistency is established.