After their roller-coaster road trip to Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Texas, the Pirates return home to PNC Park tonight to kick off an 11-game homestand against the Chicago Cubs. These 11 home games are the last regular season games to be played at PNC this year, and given that eight of them are against lousy teams, the Pirates are going to need to win a bunch of these games if they want to hurdle past the Cardinals and into first place in the NL Central again. The Pirates are, of course, coming off of a sweep against the Texas Rangers in which they needed all three of their wins because the Cardinals haven't lost this week yet, either. We've been joking all year about how each successive homestand brings "the biggest games in the history of PNC Park," but the Pirates will be playing for a division title at PNC this week. Until PNC hosts a playoff (which it hopefully will this year), well, these games are certainly the biggest games in the history of PNC Park.
This four-game set against the Cubs is particularly important, because the Cardinals finish up against the Brewers tonight, then host the Mariners over the weekend. Counting on them to suddenly drop three of four is a poor strategy. The Pirates are going to have to do what they did against the Rangers this week to find their way past the Cards; win, by whatever means necessary.
Jeff Locke is starting for the Pirates tonight. I thought that his start against the Cardinals on Saturday seemed marginally better than his disastrous month of August. There are plenty of long relief arms in the bullpen to back him up tonight (Kris Johnson and Brandon Cumpton should both be available), so I expect that the Bucs will have an exceptionally short leash on Locke tonight, should he struggle. Lefty Chris Rusin starts for the Cubs. He's got a 2.89 ERA but not much else to recommend him. His strikeout rate is low, his walk rate is kind of high, and his groundball percentage is under 50. His FIP is 4.44 and his xFIP is 4.49. Maybe a big PNC Park crowd cheering on their first winning Pirate team in memory will help him come back to earth.
There are two other things worth noting before first pitch. One is that Justin Morneau is starting against Rusin tonight. Really, one of the things that Clint Hurdle does from time to time that really drives me a little bit crazy is ignoring his platoons because one guy is coming off of a big game. Morneau's biggest strength to the Pirates at the time of the trade was that he could hit righties much better than Garrett Jones, and that he wouldn't have to struggle against lefties because of Gaby Sanchez's presence. Playing Morneau every day (which admittedly Hurdle hasn't done, though he also hasn't pinch-hit for him against LOOGYs the way he did for Jones) actually makes the Pirates worse than the Jones/Sanchez platoon. Let's hope this is an isolated incident.
And speaking of isolated incidents, apparently AJ Burnett flipped out a little bit in the clubhouse before the game when he was asked about his spat with Clint Barmes yesterday, shouting that his problem was not with Barmes but with the shifts that the Pirates have employed all year. There's been a lot of focus about Burnett expressing his dislike for the shifts, but I didn't really think that was a secret before today. It seems to me that he was more reacting to the implication that there was a problem between him and Barmes. I strongly suspect that this will end up being a non-story, but I'm mainly mentioning it now because it's all over the place at the moment.
First pitch tonight is at 7:05.