Opposite dugout: Pitching highlights series again as Pirates look to get back at Nationals

PiratesLogo.jpgManager: Clint Hurdle (5th season)

Record: 54-40

Last 10 games: 4-6

Who to watch: CF Andrew McCutchen (.290/.388/.486 with 12 HR, 57 RBIs), LF Starling Marte (.289/.336/.458 with 13 HR, 50 RBIs), 1B Pedro Alvarez (12 HR and 43 RBIs), RHP Gerrit Cole (13-4, 2.31 ERA), RHP A.J. Burnett (8-3, 2.44 ERA), RHP Mark Melancon (1.43 ERA, 30 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: 0-3

Pitching probables:

July 23: RHP Doug Fister vs. LHP Francisco Liriano, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 24: RHP Max Scherzer vs. LHP Jeff Locke, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
July 25: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP A.J. Burnett, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
July 26: RHP Joe Ross vs. RHP Gerrit Cole, 1:35 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Pirates:

The first time the Pirates and Nationals faced off this season was a forgettable one for the Bucs. The Nats swept the three-game series in D.C. by outscoring Pittsburgh 19-3. The irony was that the Pirates were supposed to have the best pitching staff in baseball at the time, but they were the ones who were dominated from the mound as Nats pitchers posted a 1.00 ERA over the weekend. But the Pirates still have the second-best ERA in the majors (2.99) coming into this four-game series.

So what about the offense? Well, they don't hit for power too much with the fourth-fewest home runs in baseball (69). All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen still leads the team by hitting for a line of .290/.388/.486 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs. Left fielder Starling Marte and first baseman Pedro Alvarez are the other main sources of homers with 13 and 12 respectively. Marte has added 50 RBIs while slashing .289/.336/.458, and while Alvarez has added 43 RBIs, he's only batting .231.

And the Pirates have their share of injuries as well. Catcher Francisco Cervelli is hitting .285 with 30 RBIs, but is day-to-day with a wrist injury. Third baseman Josh Harrison has been on the disabled list with a thumb injury while batting .279, and shortstop Jordy Mercer was just placed on the 15-day DL with a leg injury on Monday. Picking up the slack is second baseman Neil Walker, batting .272 with seven home runs and 37 RBIs. Right fielder Gregory Polanco has been struggling this season by only hitting for a .241 average with three homers and 23 RBIs.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano starts this four-game series against Doug Fister. Liriano may or may not be remembered as Scherzer's opponent in his no-hitter at Nats Park. The southpaw pitched 5 2/3 innings and gave up seven hits, five runs, one walk and six strikeouts while also giving up a home run to Bryce Harper in the loss. But that loss actually came during a stretch when Liriano was rebounding from a three-game losing streak in May. Since the losing streak, he has gone 4-2 with a 2.15 ERA over his last 10 starts. Liriano has also gone 1-0 and at least six innings in each of his last four starts since Scherzer's no-no, with the Pirates winning all four of those games. However, he is only 2-4 with a 3.86 ERA at home this season.

Jeff Locke gets the lucky opportunity to face Scherzer in Friday night's game, and he is a ways away from his 10-7 All-Star season in 2013. This season, the lefty is only 5-6 with a 4.01 ERA and has lost three of his last four starts despite a 1.78 ERA in 25 1/3 innings pitched. Locke's home record this season of 3-3 isn't much better than his record away, but his 2.58 ERA at home trumps his ERA of 6.57 away from PNC Park. He hasn't earned a decision in two career starts against the Nationals with a 2.53 ERA. Washington won the last time they faced Locke in Pittsburgh after he pitched five innings and allowed three hits, four runs (three earned), three walks, three strikeouts and one hit batter.

A.J. Burnett is the first right-hander the Pirates will throw this weekend. Burnett has been one of the better parts of Pittsburgh's rotation with an 8-3 record and a 2.44 ERA that is sixth-best in the National League. After going 0-1 through the first week of May, he rattled off six straight wins, and you could make the argument that he pitched well enough to make it eight in a row after allowing just one run over 16 innings in one loss over the two games following the win streak. But then he ran into the Nats, when he gave up 14 hits, four runs (three earned), one walk and seven strikeouts in a 4-1 loss. But he hasn't lost since, going 2-0 over his five starts since he last saw the Nationals. Burnett is 12-6 with a 3.23 ERA in his career versus Washington.

Gerrit Cole headlines this Pirates pitching staff and will face Joe Ross in Sunday's finale. Cole shouldn't take Ross lightly as an opponent though since the rookie only gave up one run over 7 1/3 innings in a win against Burnett in June. The Bucs' right-hander is up there in the Cy Young conversation by leading the majors in wins with a 13-4 record and posting the fourth-best ERA in the NL of 2.31. He too was able to win six starts in row this season while posting a 1.06 ERA over the streak. Although he is 2-1 in July, Cole is coming off a loss to the Royals on Tuesday in Kansas City in which he gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits over 7 1/3 innings. With his outstanding record, his home and away records are relatively similar, but his home ERA of 2.79 is a little higher than his 1.89 ERA on the road. He is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in two starts against the Nationals with the win coming at Nats Park. Cole could have his way with this banged up Nats lineup as only Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper have faced him before.

The Pirates have been riding their pitching staff all season, and so have the Nationals. This series is starting with the same hype as the first one did, the exception being there are four games this time around, which is good for anyone who loves star-studded pitching matchups. With the Pirates throwing the best they have against a banged up Nats squad, the offense may only have to do what they've done all season: be just good enough. Closer Mark Melancon didn't see the Nats the first time around. So if the Pirates can get the major league leader in saves (30) to the mound with his 1.43 ERA, they can probably hope for better results against Washington.

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