The last time the Pirates played teams with a record similar to theirs, they dropped five out of six to the Reds and Braves in what was their worst stretch of baseball since the season's first week. It's worth noting that evne thought they've bounced back from that ugly stretch with three straight series wins, they're still below .500 in their last 15 games because of how poorly those six games against the Reds and Braves went.
There's no such thing as must-win baseball games in June, of course, because with so many games ahead on the schedule a team can always play themselves out of slumps and get wins back. Still, I think it's important for this Pirate team to avoid too many stumbling blocks like that. This week is a pretty big test for them; they've got four games on the road against one of baseball's best teams and they're starting Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Brandon Cumpton in those four games. A split here would be a wonderful result for this Pirate team and more than that would be a pretty huge deal.
The rotation problems that the Pirates have right now put some pressure on Liriano; he was signed because he's a talented guy with a high ceiling and because with AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, he wouldn't have to be "the guy" in the Pirates' rotation. With three young/unpredictable pitchers in the rotation now along with Jeff Locke, Liriano's the closest thing they have to a proven starter. A big outing from him tonight could go a long ways towards establishing a good tone for this nine-game road trip.
It's also worth noting that Jordy Mercer is in the lineup for the fifth time in six games tonight, and that Clint Hurdle more or less indicated before the game that Mercer is going to get the bulk of the playing time at shortstop going forward. I thought that David Manel's take on this over the weekend was a very good one; that the Pirates need to be mindful of the benefit that Barmes's glove has given to their pitching staff this year, but his bat is so bad that it nearly cancels that advantage and that they need to start phasing Mercer in this year to really understand if he's an option to play short regularly in 2014 and beyond. This is a new situation for the Pirates; in the past it was easy to dump a veteran on the bench for a young player with no concern for how it affected the team's short-term performance. Of course, if Mercer keeps hitting, this is a moot point — he'll be the better player for the Pirates both in the moment and in the long-term. Let's hope for that.
The first pitch tonight is at 7:10. Mike Leake is starting for the Reds.