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Keys for Pittsburgh Pirates on upcoming 6-game road trip

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After rattling off a four-game win streak heading into Sunday night's game with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a failed comeback attempt, falling to the Redbirds, 6-5. The Pirates stranded 11 runners on the night.

On the season, the Pirates are converting at a 31 percent clip in terms of productive-out opportunities, which is right at the league average, according to Baseball-Reference. Through 69 at-bats, Gaby Sanchez has yet to produce a productive out (seven opportunities), which is defined as advancing a runner with no outs or driving in a runner with two outs.

But the offense has picked up the lack of success the starting pitching staff has had thus far. The Pirates staff has dealt with injuries to this point in the season, but the lack of support it has given the rest of the team has provided for an up-and-down year so far.

To get off to the start the team needs, retiring the leadoff man in the order needs to be a priority. It seems simple, but the Pirates have struggled mightily at the task. Three-game sets against the Milwaukee Brewers and the New York Yankees will serve as tough tests to pass in order to stay afloat in the NL Central race.

Accomplishing those tasks will provide a chance to get things back on level footing heading into the next homestand during the penultimate week of May.

Situational hitting
Situational hitting Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Situational hitting

The Pirates offense has shown signs of slowly coming around over the last 10 games, with the team averaging just over five runs per game. The team's on-base percentage has risen into the league's top 15 as well at .322. 

That's all great, however it's the situational aspects of the craft that have undermined an otherwise solid resurgence. Those finer parts of the game are brought to the forefront even more when the pitching isn't strong. 

A specific case of this particular type of hitting was pointed out by John Kruk on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. With no outs and runners on second and third in the bottom of the eight inning, Tony Sanchez grounded out to shortstop to bring home a run. What he did not do was move the runner on second over to third. Josh Harrison proceeded to ground out to shortstop during the next at-bat, which likely would have scored the would-be runner on third, and Jaff Decker ended the inning with a fly out. 

The difference in runs was one, which ultimately was the difference in the outcome of the game. 

The Pirates are converting on only 58 percent of the sacrifice bunts they have attempted this season, which is well below the league average of 71 percent. Francisco Liriano is 1-for-3 in his attempts on this year. 

Against the Brewers and the Yankees, the Pirates will need to capitalize on every potential run-scoring opportunity they have. 

Starting rotation
Starting rotation Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Starting rotation

In 2013, the Pirates rotation finished in the top five in terms of ERA (3.50), home runs allowed (65), batting average against (.243) and OPS against (.667). Through 37 games in 2014, things have been completely different. 

The staff has earned four wins (last), amassed an ERA of 4.47 (26th), allowed 26 home runs (24th) and yielded a batting average against of .260 (17th) and an OPS against of .739 (18th). 

In 20 starts last season, Charlie Morton (0-5, 3.22 ERA) accumulated 10 quality starts. In eight starts this season, Morton already has five quality starts. Those five are tied with Gerrit Cole (3-2, 3.64)  for the staff lead. Edinson Volquez, who had a staff-leading ERA of 1.93 going into his start April 27, has since given up 15 earned runs over his last 15.1 innings pitched, raising his ERA to 4.36.

Meanwhile, Liriano (0-3, 4.64) will be looking to get on track this year as he has yet to duplicate his first outing of the season against the Chicago Cubs, in which he posted six shutout innings. 

Getting quality starts out of the staff will be crucial, as the rotation is 0-12 when it receives less than three runs of support. 

Retiring the leadoff hitter
Retiring the leadoff hitter Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Retiring the leadoff hitter

The Pirates have had an issue retiring the leadoff hitter to start games. In fact, the first batter to face a Pirates pitcher at any point has reached base at a .355 clip

Of those who have made starts this season, opposing leadoff hitters have posted a batting average against of .371 in their first appearance at the plate. The Pirates will face two of the best leadoff hitters in the game in the two upcoming series against the Brewers and the Yankees.

Carlos Gomez, who sparked some intrigue in the last matchup between these two teams, is batting .292/.364/.558 with nine home runs and 21 RBI. Four of his home runs have been leadoff blasts.

Gomez has had mixed results against the Pirates so far (7-for-26), and he has hit about even at home and while on the road. However, the center fielder is hitting 9-for-21 in his career against Liriano, who is starting Wednesday. 

Jacoby Ellsbury is the primary leadoff hitter for the Yankees, hitting .306/.369/.440 overall and .302/.371/.477 out of the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Ellsbury came over from the Boston Red Sox and has provided the Yanks with quality production in several spots throughout the lineup this year. 

Brett Gardner spells Ellsbury in the Yankees leadoff spot and is hitting .281/.346/.355. Both players are threats on the basepaths if and when they get the opportunity to run. That poses a problem with starting catcher Russell Martin on the disabled list. 

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