Opposite dugout: Pirates still seeking form that got them to playoffs a year ago

PiratesLogo.jpgManager: Clint Hurdle, fourth year
Record: 19-26
Last 10 games: 4-6
Who to watch: CF Andrew McCutchen (.317/.436/.488, 18 XBH, 21 RBIs); 2B Neil Walker (.257/.333/.446, 9 HR, 25 RBIs); RHP Gerrit Cole (4-3, 3.84 ERA); RHP Charlie Morton (0-6, 3.45 ERA)
Season series vs. Nats (2013): 4-3, 31 runs scored, 29 runs against

Pitching probables
May 22: Edinson Volquez vs. Blake Treinen, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
May 23: Charlie Morton vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
May 24: Gerrit Cole vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7 p.m.
May 25: Francisco Liriano vs. Doug Fister, 1:30 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
The Pirates get their first crack at the Nationals since a quality season series a year ago when Pittsburgh took four of seven games, five of which were decided by one or two runs.

Admittedly, the Pirates haven't been the team they were a year ago when making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Their lineup hasn't been quite as productive, ranking seventh in the National League with a .249 average while tying for eighth with 178 runs and 42 homers.

Pittsburgh's pitching also has taken a step back, ranking 12th in the NL with a 4.00 ERA. Mark Melancon has anchored the majors' fifth-best bullpen (2.94 ERA), which leads the big leagues with 14 wins. But the Pirates' relief corps also has a major league-worst 11 blown saves in 22 chances.

The rotation has had greater difficulty, posting an NL-worst record of 5-20 and the NL's second-worst starters' ERA (4.60).

The Nationals will see the majority of that rotation this series, including the Pirates' top two performers - right-handers Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole.

Washington and Pittsburgh line up for a pair of must-watch pitching matchups. On Friday, Morton will face Jordan Zimmermann looking to win his first game of the season after starting 0-6 despite a rotation-leading 3.45 ERA. On Saturday, Cole will go head-to-head with Stephen Strasburg seeking his fifth win of the year.

Although the Pirates have also not been the best offensively, center fielder Andrew McCutchen continues to be one of the majors' most well-rounded players. He has a .923 OPS on the season, but has been even better over the last 25 games, batting .378 with 10 extra-base hits, 11 RBIs and three steals.

Second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez have contributed steady power production all year as well, with nine and eight homers, respectively, and a team-best 25 RBIs apiece.

This time, they'll have to contend with a stout Nationals' pitching staff that ranks fourth in the NL. The Pirates are still seeking the form that made them baseball's darlings a year ago, and over the next four days, they'll have the Nats in their way.

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