The Pittsburgh Pirates did nothing to eliminate the narrative that Miller Park has a grip on the franchise, as the Milwaukee Brewers took all three games of the series to add on to their nine-game winning streak. The Pirates never managed to score more than two runs in a game and now face a Cincinnati Reds team that has the third-best opponents' batting average in the league (.208).
The story of the series in Milwaukee, and the underlying problem thus far for the Pirates, has been the lack of any offensive production. Teams are pitching around Andrew McCutchen, who is tied for the lead in the National League in walks with Jay Bruce (11). The MVP's .233 average signifies that production will need to come from others in the Pirates lineup.
Where will that offense come from?
Pedro Alvarez has gotten off to a strong start—yes, even with his .178 average. Through 12 games last season, Alvarez was hitting .079. The power-hitting left-hander finished tied for the league lead in home runs at the end of the year, yet he didn't hit his first home run until April 18. He finished April with four home runs.
This year, he is second behind Mark Trumbo for the league lead in home runs, though Trumbo has played three more games, prior to the start of Monday's slate.
But with the power coming from Alvarez, baserunners will need to be generated elsewhere in the lineup. That all starts at the top of the order.
Monday's game with the Reds is the first of a three-game set in Cincinnati. Wandy Rodriguez (0-2, 5.73 ERA) will take on Homer Bailey (0-1, 7.71) at 7:10 p.m. ET.
Bailey has had some memorable success against the Pirates in the past. On Sept. 28, 2012 at PNC Park, Bailey threw the seventh no-hitter of the 2012 season. The loss extended the Pirates' record 20th consecutive non-winning season.
But Bailey's success has primarily been at PNC Park, where he is 5-1 with a 1.60 ERA. When matched up against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park, the right-hander is 3-4 with a 4.15 ERA.
Russell Martin (5-for-14) and McCutchen (11-for-37 with 11 walks) will anchor the lineup.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez has yet to win against the Reds as a Pirate and is 8-12 against the team in his career. The lefty does sport a career ERA under 4.00 in 13 games started at Great American, though. Cincinnati's home field has finished the past three years inside the top three in terms of its propensity to surrender home runs.
It would appear that Rodriguez would have the advantage against the power-hitting lefties in the Reds lineup, but that will not entirely be the case. First baseman Joey Votto, a career .291 hitter against southpaws, is a .352 hitter against the former Astro (19-for-54). On the opposite end of the spectrum, outfielder Jay Bruce, a career .235 hitter against left-handers, is 3-for-35 against Rodriguez.
The second game of the series gets underway Tuesday night at 7:10 p.m. Gerrit Cole (2-0, 3.46) takes the mound to face Mike Leake (1-1, 2.45).
In seven starts against the Pirates at Great American, Leake is 4-0 with a 3.52 ERA. A few Pirates have positive histories against the 26-year-old, including Martin (9-for-19) and Neil Walker (9-for-28).
The Cincinnati offense has scored less runs (40) than the Pirates (44) this year, so something will have to give in a ballpark with a history such as Great American.
Cole has yet to face the Reds in his career, but the 23-year-old's opponents' batting average goes down dramatically after seeing a batter each time in a game. From the first plate appearance to the third plate appearance, the opposing team's average drops 67 points. With a team struggling for offense, save for Sunday's 12-4 rout of Tampa Bay, that could prove instrumental toward the outcome.
The finale of the series is a rematch of the 2013 NL Wild Card Game, as Francisco Liriano (0-2, 4.00) and Johnny Cueto (0-2, 2.14) take the hill. The third game of the series will be a matinee matchup as first pitch is set for 12:35 p.m.
Liriano started the year with a solid outing against the Chicago Cubs, but he has sputtered a bit in his two subsequent starts, allowing eight earned runs in 12 innings. The left-hander will hope to get back on track in a place that hasn't necessarily been kind to his efforts. In two career starts at Great American, Liriano is 0-2 with seven earned runs allowed in 10.1 innings pitched.
Cueto, however, will be looking to wash the taste of his wild-card performance out of his mouth, in which he went 3.1 innings and gave up four of the six runs the Pirates scored. In his career, the 28-year-old has dominated the Pirates, going 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 starts.
The right-hander will attempt to bring that confidence to the finale of the series, but he will have to contend with McCutchen, who has three career home runs in 39 at-bats against the Dominican.
With the Reds languishing at the bottom of the NL Central, this series has implications beyond the normal rivalry.