When the Pirates play games like they did last night, with Wandy Rodriguez cruising on the mound and the defense clicking behind him and all sorts of guys coming up with big hit after big hit, it's actually sort of easy to watch them and think, "Seriously, this team could contend for a playoff spot." It's obviously early to talk about things like that when the team in question is the Pirates, but it's one of those thoughts that's crept into my mind more than once in this homestand.
I suspect that tonight will be much different. James McDonald is getting another start for the Pirates and that frankly seems all kinds of unacceptable after his last start agains the Cardinals. There's not really any reason to think that he'll do any better against the Braves tonight. His mound opponent tonight will be ex-Pirate Paul Maholm, who's career has taken off since joining the Braves at the trade deadline last year. In 14 starts with the Braves this year and last, Maholm has a 2.73 ERA and a 3.3 K/BB ratio, which is better than any individual season he had with the Pirates. He's started throwing what PitchFX classifies as a cutter and he also mixes in a ridiculously slow curveball that Jeff Karstens would be jealous of. In three starts this year, he's struck out 20 in 20 1/3 innings, walked just five, scattered 11 hits, and allowed zero runs. It used to be that Maholm would put up one or two excellent starts a year where he'd miss a ton of bats and look tantalizingly good, then the next time out on the mound he'd look like Regular Old Paul Maholm. Increasingly in the last half-season, Tantalizingly Good Paul Maholm is replacing Regular Old Paul Maholm.
To counter Maholm, the Pirates are giving Pedro Alvarez the night off and starting Russell Martin at third base. Alvarez has hit two homers that have totaled 850 feet against the Braves in this series, but I have no problem giving him a night off against a lefty like Maholm. Martin has been scorching hot this week with six hits (including two doubles and a homer) in the last four games. Travis Snider will also sit in favor of Jose Tabata. I know that Tabata had a double last night and I know that the plan all year has been to platoon Snider and Tabata, but geez, Snider has pretty clearly been the Pirates' best hitter since getting his first start of the season against Arizona and he's only gone hitless in one game that he's started. Taking him out of the lineup right now doesn't feel like a great idea.
Anyway, the first pitch of the night is at 7:05. If James McDonald's still pitching at 8 o'clock, I'll be pretty surprised.