Manager: Clint Hurdle, fourth year
Last 10 games: 5-5
Who to watch: 2B Neil Walker (.277/.347/.456, 16 HR, 50 RBIs); UT Josh Harrison (.313/.351/.503, 25 doubles, 10 HR, 38 RBIs, 17 SB); RHP Edinson Volquez (10-7, 3.67 ERA, 1.27 WHIP); RHP Charlie Morton (5-11, 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 3-1, 12 runs scored, 11 runs allowed
The Pirates have managed to stay in the heated National League Central race despite dealing with injury problems of late.
Pittsburgh might be third in the division, but is just 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers and a half-game ahead of the Giants for the NL’s second Wild Card as it heads to Nationals Park for a weekend series with the NL East leaders.
The Pirates are without star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who hasn’t played since Aug. 3 when suffering a broken rib on a hit by pitch against the Diamondbacks.
Second baseman Neil Walker has appeared in just two games since Aug. 1 because of multiple injury problems, but might be back in the lineup tonight. Shortstop Jordy Mercer left Thursday’s game with right forearm tightness. Reliever Stolmy Pimentel is expected to be placed on the disabled list to make room for newly acquired reliever John Axford.
Even with all that going on, the Pirates have been able to stay afloat. They’re 10-10 over their last 20 games and 5-5 since losing McCutchen. With the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds all performing about the same of late, Pittsburgh has fluctuated between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 games out of first all month.
The Pirates’ strength has been its offense, which ranks third in the NL with 511 runs and a .258 average, second with a .728 OPS and fourth with 108 homers.
With the injuries to McCutchen and Walker, super utility man Josh Harrison has stood out. He’s batting .407 with an 1.115 OPS, 10 extra-base hits and 15 runs scored in 13 games this month. Overall this year, Harrison has an .854 OPS, 25 doubles, 10 homers, 38 RBIs, 17 steals and 57 runs scored.
Outfielder Travis Snider has also provided a hot bat of late, going 7-for-15 with three homers and seven RBIs in his last four games.
Walker has been one of the Pirates’ most productive hitters overall this year with 16 homers and 50 RBIs. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has added 15 homers and 49 RBIs, but is batting .229.
The Pittsburgh pitching staff hasn’t been as good, ranking 10th in the NL with a 3.72 team ERA and a 3.83 rotation ERA while ranking ninth with a 3.55 bullpen ERA.
In regards to the starting staff, that figure is only indicative of the club’s lack of an ace. The current rotation has no weak members, with none of the five possessing an ERA above left-hander Jeff Locke’s 3.98.
Over the weekend, the Nationals will go up against three solid starters - right-handers Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez, as well as Locke.
Morton starts tonight’s opener against Tanner Roark. The 30-year-old Morton is 5-11, but isn’t having a bad year with a 3.62 ERA. He hasn’t been at his best lately, going 0-2 with a 5.25 ERA over his last six starts. But Morton had a 3.10 ERA over his first 18 starts.
In the second game, Locke will face Gio Gonzalez in a lefty-lefty duel. Locke has also been scuffling recently, going 2-2 with a 6.38 ERA over his last four starts. He was 2-1 with a 3.05 ERA over his first nine starts.
Volquez takes on Doug Fister in the premier pitching match-up of the series. Volquez is performing the best of the Pirates’ three upcoming starters, as he’s 6-1 with a 2.30 ERA over his last nine outings. He had started the year 4-6 with a 4.67 ERA in his first 15 starts.
Closer Mark Melancon and set-up man Tony Watson do a good job at the end of the game for Pittsburgh. Melancon has converted 22 of 25 save chances while posting a 2.13 ERA in 53 appearances. Watson is 8-1 with a 1.43 ERA in 57 appearances.
They are now joined by Axford, who was 2-3 with 10 saves and a 3.92 ERA in 49 appearances for the Indians this season.
The Pirates haven’t been cruising by any means, but they’re deep enough to play .500 ball with some of their most important players out. And the Nationals won’t be able to look past a diminished club this weekend if they hope to distance themselves further from the Braves in the NL East.