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Pittsburgh Pirates look to get back on track against St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Brandon Cumpton provided the team with seven strong innings Thursday, but he received only one run of support, which was not enough in the end.
Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Brandon Cumpton provided the team with seven strong innings Thursday, but he received only one run of support, which was not enough in the end.
Photo by Justin K. Aller

The Pittsburgh Pirates' start to the 2014 season has been abysmal at best and horrid at worst. Yet, with five games remaining in the first month of the season, any postseason hopes are not yet in danger.

Sure, the offense has been downright lousy with its .229 team batting average and .301 team on-base percentage, ranking 26th and 25th in the majors, respectively. According to Fangraphs, the team has produced a wRC+ of 91, which places it 21st in the league.

And yes, Jason Grilli and Jeanmar Gomez have struggled to help solidify a bullpen that was stellar last season. Grilli's and Gomez's ERA+ of 78 and 62, respectively, are evidence of that. Those numbers are primarily based on nine of 14 appearances coming at PNC Park, quite possibly the quintessential pitcher's park in baseball. All of Grilli's runs allowed and four of Gomez's seven were yielded on the North Shore.

However, with 139 games left on the schedule, doom doesn't seem imminent.

With the conclusion of the three-game series against St. Louis, the Pirates will have ended a stretch of 26 games against NL Central opponents. Last season, the team had a solid mix of games against teams across several divisions, including the Philadelphia Phillies, the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks—of which the Pirates went a combined 8-6. If you're keeping track, the Pirates were 7-6 against divisional opponents in the remaining games in April.

That's a solid mark against a division that featured the NL champion Cardinals and both members of the NL Wild Card game. The emergence of the Milwaukee Brewers this season, on the back of Ryan Braun's return, has introduced another competitor to the field.

Still, improvements must be made.

The opportunity begins with the aforementioned series against the Redbirds in St. Louis. Gerrit Cole (2-1, 3.67 ERA) will be on the mound for the Pirates against Shelby Miller (1-2, 3.57). Friday's game gets underway at 8:15 p.m. ET. Saturday's and Sunday's games are matinee affairs, as they begin at 4:05 p.m. and 2:15 p.m., respectively.

Cole has been one of the better pitchers on the Pirates staff, and in actuality, some advanced statistics indicate that he has been the best. The right-hander's SIERA is 3.46, the lowest on the staff and lower than his actual ERA, indicating his ERA could drop further due to his performance.

On the contrary, Edinson Volquez (1-1, 1.93), who will be taking the mound in the finale of the three-game set on Sunday against Adam Wainwright (4-1, 1.46), should see a rather large regression as the season wears on based on his 4.10 SIERA.

Francisco Liriano (0-3, 4.22) will take the mound Saturday and face off against Tyler Lyons (0-1, 3.00). Liriano has struggled so far this season, especially with walks, as his walk rate is at a troubling 8.8 percent. Despite his recent hardships, his SIERA is the second lowest on the staff (3.49) which should indicate a return toward some semblance of the Liriano Pirates fans saw last year.

With Wandy Rodriguez on the disabled list with right knee inflammation and Charlie Morton struggling, there are significant fluctuations in the Pirates rotation right now. The loss of top prospect Jameson Taillon for the season to Tommy John surgery puts a damper on any potential call up to spark the rotation a la Cole last year, but there are other options. Stolmy Pimentel could make a spot start out of the bullpen and there are a few alternatives in Triple-A to consider, among them Brandon Cumpton who was called up to start against the Reds Thursday.

Following the series with the Cardinals, the Pirates take a short trip to Baltimore for a two-game set before returning home for a nine-game homestand against the Toronto Blue Jays, the San Francisco Giants and the Cardinals. The schedule doesn't necessarily get any easier, but a venture out of the NL Central could do some good for a team that spent nearly an entire month embroiled in its midst.

One player does not make a team, however No. 1 prospect Gregory Polanco is hitting .420/.460/.679 with four home runs and 22 RBI in 81 at-bats at Triple-A Indianapolis. He should receive his call-up sometime in June, most likely after the Super Two cutoff. When he arrives, and assuming he takes over in right field and yields somewhat similar results as Starling Marte produced upon his promotion, the team's offensive output will improve.