Series Preview: Mets vs. Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates baseball flag logoThe last time the Mets faced an NL Central cellar dweller at home, they took three out of four. Today they welcome the 41-56 Pittsburgh Pirates to Shea for a three-game series.

The Pirates, actually, are a half-game up on the Cincinnati Reds and therefore not technically in first place. But no one will be surprised if they are by Thursday night.

Manager Jim Tracy sends his best three starters to the hill, so it won’t be a piece of cake for the Mets. Indeed, should the Mets not take the Pirates seriously, they’ll have not cake but their collective butts handed to them. Though they’ve been underachieving all year, the Pirates do have two things going for them: starting pitching and defense. Often, that combination can be lethal — even if the bats are quiet.

For a better quality preview, we’ve called on Pat Lackey from the popular Pirates blog, “Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?” to provide some inside information. His input is inside the quotes, in the gray boxes.

Game One: John Maine vs. Ian Snell

Both team send their aces to the mound in the opener. Maine, as we know, needs to get back on track after finishing the first half with a flourish, only to see his ERA “balloon” from 2.71 to 3.07 after his first two starts of the second half. It looked like his mechanics were a bit off, as his front shoulder was flying out a little early and causing his release point to be a little higher than normal (resulting in balls up and away to lefties). Less walks and more ground balls will help, and should be the result of a return to his better mechanics.

Unless you have him on your fantasy team, you might not know that Ian Snell is an up-and-comer with a high strikeout rate. In fact, he, like Maine, is having a year worthy of All-Star consideration, but was also snubbed. Snell — who has also been known professionally as “Ian Oquendo” (long story, but true) — is a little (5’10”), hard-throwing righty who’d been overlooked earlier in his career due to concerns about his size and durability (hmm … they though the same about a certain Pedro M.). Here is Pat’s take:

“You’re going to see the three best pitchers in the Pirates rotation this week, for what that’s worth. Snell really blossomed in the first half of this season. Last year in his breakout season he still had a lot of trouble with lefties and gave up a lot of homers. This year, he’s really managed to improve in both categories. He throws a good fastball (usually 93-95), a good curve, and has finally developed a decent change to go with the other pitches. In his first two starts after the break, he’s given up five homers, four to lefties, which is a bit of a concern given last season.”

Game Two: Tom Glavine vs. Tom Gorzelanny

Did they do that on purpose? Is it “Tom G” night at Shea?

Anyway, it’s time for Tommy Glavine to return to form, and the Pirates are as good a team as any. The Bucs have a lot of young, over-aggressive hitters in their lineup — exactly the types that Glavine feasts on. I think we’ll see at least 7-8 strikeouts and a lot of grounders on 1-0 and 2-0 counts.

Gorzelanny may be a better pitcher than Snell, as he has similarly good stuff doesn’t try to strike everyone out and thus more efficient. Look for him to keep the ball on the ground via a hard sinker and good changeup. Also, let’s hope Shawn Green is not in the lineup, or he’ll be eaten alive by Gorzelanny’s sharp slider (Delgado may wear the golden sombrero). According to Pat:

“Gorzelanny has also come a long way this year. He can also run his fastball up to around 95 or 95, though it usually sits in the lower 90s. He also throws a very good slider and a changeup. His strikeouts are a bit down from his minor league numbers this year, but it is his first full year in the majors.”

Game Three: Oliver Perez vs. Paul Maholm

Ollie’s been brilliant at times this year — but only when his head is screwed on straight. Will his first start against the organization that trashed him prove to be too overwhelming for his psyche? There’s no doubt he’ll be keyed up, and looking to prove something, but sometimes his emotions get out of control — a bad call or error early in the game might set him off. My guess is that he’ll either throw eight shutout innings or be gone by the fourth. Let’s hope for the former.

The Pirates send Maholm to the mound, a guy who took full advantage of the Wandy Rodriguez Effect last year (in fact, it was nearly dubbed the “Paul Maholm Effect”), going 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts vs. the Mets. He’s an underwhelming lefthander who relies on staying ahead of batters and getting groundballs with his sinker — a lot like Tommy John.

Pat says this about him:

“Maholm got off to a poor start this year, but has really turned things around in his past few starts. He’s more of a soft-tossing lefty, mixing in a few off-speed pitches with a fastball that generally sits in the high 80s. He’s cut down his walks this year, which is where I think his recent success has come from.”

Mets Bats

The Mets are finally executing the team philosophy of taking pitches, getting into deep counts, and making the starting pitcher work — and it’s already paying dividends. Add to their newfound strategy of manufacturing runs the fact that Moises Alou will be making his return to the lineup — just in time to face the Pirates two tough lefties. Recent roster additions Marlon Anderson and Lastings Milledge are only hitting around .200, but the hits they’re getting have been big — Milledge has six RBI in his last seven games. Carlos Delgado continues to swing a hot bat, and David Wright’s average is creeping closer to .300 every day. With the injury to Jose Valentin, Ruben Gotay will get a fair chance to prove he’s the answer at second base — he’s 6 for his last 18. Jose Reyes broke his mini-slump by going 3-for-5 on Sunday. Carlos Beltran is batting .321 in his last seven games with three homers and seven RBI.

Pirates Bats

It used to be all about Jason Bay, but the Canadian is having a horrible year, batting only .246 and getting worse as the weeks go by — he’s hitting a combined .162 for the months of June and July. And we thought the Carloses were slumping! That makes Xavier Nady the Pirates’ top threat, and he is having a good year — .280/14/52. So the idea that we “fleeced” the Bucs out of Ollie Perez isn’t exactly true — it’s been a good deal for both sides. Pittsburgh’s lone All-Star rep, Fredi Sanchez, won’t win a batting title this year, but he is approaching .300. The much-heralded deal that brought slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche has been something of a disappointment, as LaRoche is hitting .246/14/56. He is, however, 7 for his last 15, so may be on a hot streak. Catcher Ronny Paulino is hitting nowhere near the .310 of a year ago, though Ryan Doumit is still banging the ball — and still can’t find a position. Centerfielder Chris Duffy is on the DL, and they have a kid named Rajai Davis who’s hitting .455 in his last seven games, but manages to erase himself from the basepaths with dumb baserunning blunders. As Pat says about the Pirates,

“I could talk about the Pirate offense, but let’s just say they made Woody Williams look like the old Woody Williams this week. There’s really no one worth worrying about there, from your perspective.”

Pirates Bullpen

Per Pat:

“The bullpen is just awful. Matt Capps has been a pretty good closer, Shawn Chacon has done a decent job setting up, and Damaso Marte has been devastating to lefties (he’s rarely allowed to pitch to righties), but that’s about it. Torres has been pretty bad all year, though he has battled arm troubles. John Grabow hasn’t been able to get anyone out all year. Masumi Kuwata is a 39-year old veteran of the Japan leagues that throws really, really slow and can sometimes sneak through an inning on that, but he’s rarely good for more than an inning. Tony Armas Jr. has been embarrassing.”

Bottom Line

The Mets are in the soft part of their schedule, and this is a golden opportunity to extend their lead over the second-place Braves. Taking two out of three from the Pirates is the expectation — anything less will be a disappointment.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.