After staving off the Chicago Cubs in consecutive extra-inning games to start the season, and subsequently dropping the final game of the series, the Pittsburgh Pirates will welcome the reigning National League champion St. Louis Cardinals to Pittsburgh for a three-game series this weekend.
The NL Central's bottom-dwellers of 2013 gave the Pirates all they could handle, exposing one of the team's potential weaknesses going forward: its offense with runners in scoring position. The Pirates had four hits in 24 plate appearances against the Cubs with RISP, and though the team came away victorious twice, it amassed only seven runs in 35 innings (or nearly four games).
Against the Cardinals, a team that led the majors last year in converting with RISP (.330) by nearly 40 points, an unneeded weight will be placed on the Pirates pitching staff—especially if the offense is stymied.
Friday's probable starters include controversial NLDS Game 5 starter, Gerrit Cole, and Shelby Miller, who only threw one inning during the postseason last year.
In terms of the current starting rotation, Cole had the highest ERA last year at PNC Park (3.75) in 72 innings pitched. The hard-throwing right-hander has not faced the Cardinals during the regular season.
Cole shut down the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS with Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran, now a New York Yankee, collecting the lone hits against the 23-year-old. His performance in Game 5 was similar, yet the Pirates bats were silenced by Adam Wainwright.
In four career starts against the Pirates, Miller is 0-4 with a 5.32 ERA. Neil Walker (5-for-9), Russell Martin (3-for-7) and Andrew McCutchen (3-for-9) all have solid numbers against the 23-year-old.
The first game of the series gets underway at 7:05 p.m. ET.
Saturday's showdown features Francisco Liriano against Joe Kelly. Liriano was dominant in his first start of the season against the Cubs. The lefty went six innings, yielding four hits while striking out 10.
Last season, Liriano was 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA against the Cardinals. Two of the three starts came at PNC Park, while the lone outing in St. Louis was a complete-game effort.
Several new Cardinals additions have positive histories with Liriano. Peter Bourjos (5-for-12) and Jhonny Peralta (13-for-37) are hitting over .350 against the 30-year-old. Despite his sluggish start to the season, this could be an opportunity for Bourjos to get back on track.
Saturday's start will be Kelly's first action of the season. In eight career appearances against the Pirates, the right-hander is 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA. At PNC Park, Kelly is solid, posting a 2-1 record and a 2.84 ERA, though last year he was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA.
Martin, again, has had success—though limited—in the past against Kelly (3-for-4). That is the extent, though, as the success produced from the current Pirates lineup has been achieved over a finite number of at-bats.
The second game of the series is set to start at 7:05 p.m.
Sunday's finale showcases Wainwright and, reportedly, the Pirates' offseason acquisition Edinson Volquez.
Manager Clint Hurdle said on his radio show that Volquez would start as scheduled Sunday, despite throwing two innings of relief Thursday, as per Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Volquez allowed one hit and struck out two Thursday. In 10 career starts against the Cardinals, the former Red is 3-5 with a 5.56 ERA in 55 innings.
The right-hander struggled mightily last year and has not had a season as strong as his 2008 campaign since leaving Cincinnati.
Matt Holliday (8-for-20) and Allen Craig (3-for-6) have put up strong numbers against the Dominican in the past and will look to do so in 2014.
Wainwright was dominant last season, and he proved his excellence in the NLDS, but he was mediocre in his only start at PNC Park during the regular season last year. His career numbers are no different. In 11 appearances, the 6-foot-7-inch right-hander is 5-1 with a 5.46 ERA.
While McCutchen (12-for-28), Martin (9-for-22), Clint Barmes (7-for-21), Neil Walker (6-for-19) and Jose Tabata (6-for-16) have strong numbers against the veteran, over 72 percent of his 186 starts have come with at least three runs of support.
Sunday's game gets underway at 1:35 p.m.