As was announced this morning, the Pirates will turn to Kris Johnson to finish out this series against the Cardinals. So who is Kris Johnson? Other than his big league debut two weeks ago, when he turned in six innings of relief against the Diamondbacks in what was ultimately a losing effort, Johnson's been enjoying a surprise breakout season with Indianapolis this year. Johnson was drafted by the Red Sox in the supplemental part of the first round of the 2006 draft, but never fulfilled that promise. The Red Sox let him go in the middle of the 2011 season and he signed with the Pirates prior to 2012.
He didn't seem to be all that interesting as a 27-year old minor league free agent, and to be honest I didn't know much about him until the early part of this season. He started for Indianapolis when I watched them play in Durham in June and I noticed then that he was having a nice season, but he was mostly solid-but-unspectacular that day (six innings pitched, nine hits, three strikeouts, no walks, one run allowed). That's basically how his whole year with Indy has gone; he's only got 94 strikeouts in 135 2/3 innings, but he's also only walked 43 batters and only allowed six homers. Because of that good control and low homer rate, he put up a 2.39 ERA with Indy and it's certainly fair to say that he's earned this start. I don't think that he's a long-term rotation option, but he's an interesting choice for today as a left that the Cardinals are likely unfamiliar with.
His mound opponent, Joe Kelly, has been excellent since the Cardinals put him into the rotation on July 6th. He's made nine starts and the Cardinals have won eight of those games. His ERA is 2.24 over that span. The only good news the Pirates have is that his peripherals are not great; he's pitched 52 1/3 innings, struck out 29 hitters, and walked 23. His groundball rate for the season is sitting close to 50%, which is good but not great. If you want, you could say that he's having the sort of run in the second half that Jeff Locke had in the first half; he's pitching well, but not nearly as well as his numbers indicate.
Perhaps it's the newly revamped Pirate lineup that will be the team that finally breaks through against Kelly. With Justin Morneau in black and gold, the Pirates are trying something a bit different against Kelly. Neil Walker will bat leadoff and Garrett Jones will bat second. I really like Walker in the leadoff spot against righties because of the way that he gets on base, but I'm still waiting for Clint Hurdle to put Andrew McCutchen in the two-slot behind him. Simply put: if you put your best hitter behind your best on-base guy, good things will happen. For some reason, though, managers really don't like batting their best hitters anywhere but third, which makes sense in theory (more batters ahead of him equals more runners on base), but simply doesn't play out if you run the numbers. Morneau is in the lineup and batting sixth, behind Marlon Byrd. Walker, Jones, McCutchen, Alvarez, Byrd, Morneau, Buck, Mercer. That lineup is quite a bit deeper than the one the Pirates had last Sunday, isn't it?
First pitch today is at 1:35. The difference between a two-game lead and a tie in September is at least one order of magnitude. The wins on Friday and Saturday mean this isn't a must-win game for the Pirates, but a win today would be pretty huge.