Things haven't been great in Braves country lately, but Atlanta gets a chance to end the road trip on a high note as they drop into Pittsburgh for a quick two-game series. The Braves enter the series with Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward recently placed on the disabled list, and have called up Wilkin Ramirez and Jordan Schafer. Left-hander Mike Minor is also being pressed into duty this series in place of Tim Hudson due to a bad back.
Pittsburgh on the other hand enters the series with some momentum. The Pirates are coming off a series win against Detroit and before that a two-game sweep of Cincinnati. On the season, Pittsburgh is 22-24 and 5.5 games back of the Central division leading St. Louis Cardinals.
The Pirates had a busy off-season, spending money in the free agency and being active in the trade market. They signed first baseman Lyle Overbay, starting pitcher Kevin Correia, and our old friend Matt Diaz among others while trading away starter Zach Duke to Arizona.
Pitching match-ups and an offensive breakdown after the jump.
Tuesday May 24, 7:05 EDT
In the first game of the series, the Braves face former Brave Charlie Morton, who was sent to Pittsburgh in the trade that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta. This isn't the same Morton that was in Atlanta, as he has completely transformed his game and has been one of the top pitchers in the National League this year. On the year, Morton is 5-1 with a 2.62 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and 3.89 xFIP and primarily uses a sinker to achieve a ground-ball percentage of 61.9%, easily the highest of his career. He doesn't strike out many batters, only 4.75 K/9 and walks a good number of hitters, 4.25 BB/9. In his last start, he threw a complete game shutout, scattering five hits and two walks while striking out five. Something interesting to note, Morton has a very large platoon split and so far has struggled mightily against left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting .385/.488/.538 off of him compared to .156/.224/.178 for right handed hitters. He isn't a dominant pitcher, and relies on getting lots of ground-balls with that sinker. Combine that along with his struggles against left-handed hitters, and the Braves will have a chance of getting some offense going against Morton.
Wednesday May 25, 12:35 EDT
Mike Minor (0-1, 10.38 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 5.28 xFIP)
In the finale of the series, Atlanta sends Mike Minor to the mound in a spot start against the Pirates James McDonald. On the season, McDonald is 3-3 with a 5.51 ERA, 5.04 FIP, and 4.34 xFIP and is coming off a win in Cincinatti where he threw 6.2 innings, giving up seven hits, one run (earned), while walking one and striking out four. Like Morton, McDonald also has some issues with walks, as he is averaging 4.37 BB/9 while striking out 7.42 K/9. He also struggles with giving up home run balls, as he has one of the higher HR/9 ratios in the National League at 1.52. Even with the Braves struggling offense, they have a good chance of offensive success against McDonald.
While the Pirates have gotten decent pitching to begin the year, their offense has struggled. They have the third worst batting average in the league (.237), the fifth worst on-base average (.313), and the fourth worst slugging percentage at (.360).
The Pirates on offense start with the uber-talented Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is hitting .257/.359/.474 with a wOBA of .368. He leads the team in home runs with eight and is second in steals with seven. Some of their other offensive pieces include Garrett Jones (.246/.355/.441), Neil Walker (.276/.346/.447), and Ryan Doumit (.291/.358/.477).
Pittsburgh is missing young talent Pedro Alvarez as he is on the disabled list, and is waiting for another young hitter in Jose Tabata to find his way in 2011. So far, Tabata is hitting .238/.347/.357 but does have 11 steals on the season. In 79 PA's, former Brave Matt Diaz is hitting just .237/.266/.303.
Joel Hanrahan - RH (CL)
Evan Meek -RH
Chris Resop -RH
Jose Veras -RH
Daniel McCutchen -RH
Joe Biemel -LH
Jose Ascansio -RH
The Pirates bullpen has been solid in 2011, as they have the sixth best bullpen ERA in the league at 3.13 along with the seventh best FIP at 3.52. Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan has been lights out so far this year, as he is 13-13 on save chances and is 0-1 with a 1.66 ERA while striking out 16 and only walking 5.
Former Brave Chris Resop has been the most heavily used arm out of the pen, throwing 23 innings with an ERA of 4.30 but a FIP of just 2.95 to go with a K/9 of 11.35. Jose Veras is another bullpen arm with around 20 innings of work and a high K/9, as his is 12.81 in 19.2 innings. Joe Biemel is the only lefty in the bullpen, and brings a 4.38 ERA in just over 12 innings of work into the series. Daniel McCutchen has gotten a good bit of run in the pen as well, sporting a sparkling 0.44 ERA in 20.1 innings of work.
Pittsburgh gets a boost in the pen this series as Evan Meek, an all-star in 2010, is back after a stint on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. Meek was fantastic last year, and if he is at full strength he'll slot into the eighth inning role in front of Hanrahan.
Atlanta is bruised and battered and struggling at the plate, while Pittsburgh comes in with some momentum. With Jurrjens going on Tuesday, the Braves should have a good chance against Charlie Morton. James McDonald is nothing special, but it all depends on which Mike Minor shows up for the Braves Wednesday. A sweep would be nice, but a series split is needed at the very least.