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Top storylines to watch as Pittsburgh Pirates take on Milwaukee Brewers

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The Pittsburgh Pirates dropped their second consecutive series of the 2014 season after losing 4-0 to the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday, and they have now lost six of their last eight games. The first-place Milwaukee Brewers come into town to kick off an eight-game homestand Thursday with the hope that things will turn around before the team heads out on another road trip.

After sputtering in Milwaukee once again, the Pirates will be glad to see the friendly confines of PNC Park as they face off against the Brewers in a four-game series.

Game 1 of the series gets underway Thursday at 7:05 p.m. ET and features Edinson Volquez (0-0, 1.29), who has gotten off to a solid start, and Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 0.96), who surrendered his first runs of the season to the Pirates in his last outing. Gallardo is 5-3 with a 1.89 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 52.1 innings pitched at PNC Park.

Game 2 of the series takes place Friday at 7:05 p.m. and will showcase Charlie Morton (0-1, 3.32) and Kyle Lohse (2-1, 3.05). Lohse threw 8.2 innings of four-hit ball in his last outing against the Pirates, allowing one run while striking out nine.

The third game of the series will pit two veterans against one another: Wandy Rodriguez (0-2, 7.31) vs. Matt Garza (0-2, 3.43). Rodriguez has struggled to this early point in the season, allowing more runs in each successive start.

Sunday's finale is a matinee affair that will include right-handers Gerrit Cole (2-1, 4.74) and Marco Estrada (1-1, 3.06). Cole and Estrada did not pitch in the previous series. Cole is 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA in 19.1 innings pitched against the Brewers in his career, and he is 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA in 13 starts at PNC Park. Estrada is 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA in 56.2 innings pitched against the Pirates. His numbers at PNC Park are equally as stellar, as he is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings pitched.

In a series that will showcase teams looking to get back to winning ways, these are the top storylines to watch for.

Offensive production

It's no secret that the Pirates offense has been abysmal through 15 games. The team ranks 28th in the league in batting average (.223) and 26th in on-base percentage (.294). The saving grace has been the team's knack for the long ball, largely aided by the six-homer outburst at Great American Ball Park Monday.

Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are a tale of two teams with differing offensive identities right now. At the top of the lineup, the Pirates have left fielder Starling Marte, who is sporting a .250 average, one home run and a .338 OBP. He was given the day off Wednesday after going hitless in his last eight at-bats. In the two-hole, right fielder Travis Snider has struggled to maintain consistency, batting .240 with an OBP of .283.

Meanwhile, the Brewers have Carlos Gomez at the leadoff spot, who is batting .328 with four home runs, 10 RBI and a .391 OBP. The Brewers' success has been predicated on their pitching staff, but Gomez has been critical to the team's success.

The Pirates will need to generate baserunners and convert on the opportunities that they create. The team amassed five runs in the previous series with the Brewers and was outscored by six. The pitching staff keeps the team in games, but the offense has yet to kick into gear.

2013's success will serve as an inspiration as the team went 7-3 against Milwaukee at PNC Park, outscoring the Brewers 42-27.

Contain Carlos Gomez

The Brewers have a true top-of-the-order threat in their lineup. The 28-year-old center fielder is currently in the top five in terms of WAR and OPS, according to ESPN. With third baseman Aramis Ramirez hitting a blistering .377, Gomez has been a catalyst in the run-scoring department as well.

Keeping Gomez off the basepaths will be crucial toward taking the series and regaining some momentum in the NL Central standings.

Gomez has limited, but solid numbers against Volquez (6-for-17 with three home runs), but he has struggled against Rodriguez (5-for-34 with 14 strikeouts). The right-hander will be looking to build on his career slash line of .322/.354/.411 at PNC Park. The Dominican native has eight hits in his last 20 at-bats.

The speedster is among the top 10 in the NL in many offensive categories, including his 13.8 runs created (seventh), .295 isolated power (sixth), 20 hits (seventh) and four home runs (seventh).

Brewers' pitching staff

While the offense has come through at opportune times, the pitching staff is what has carried the Brewers to their 11-4 record. To this point in the season, Milwaukee has as many shutouts as it does losses. The team ranks first in the majors in ERA (2.17), second in quality starts (11), first in WHIP (1.01) and fourth in opponents' batting average (.215). It would seem that this matchup is a mismatch, though the Brewers are coming off a series in which the St. Louis Cardinals took two of three and outscored them 11-6.

The starting rotation that is slated to pitch for the Brewers has strong numbers at PNC Park. Combined, the four hurlers are 14-5. With an xFIP of 3.14, the lowest in the majors, according to Fangraphs, the Brewers should be able to remain near the top of the league going forward. A trip to one of MLB's most notorious pitcher-friendly parks should favor the top staff in the majors as well, so long as the team can bounce back from its near-sweep at the hands of the Cardinals.

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