Welcome once again to Series Six Pack. In these, we try to analyze the Milwaukee Brewers’ series with the opposition by talking with a writer from the other team. This weekend, the Brewers (40-45) find themselves at home against some tough competition with the NL Central first place Pittsburgh Pirates (48-37). On the season, the Pirates took two out of three in a series at Miller Park back at the beginning of June. Since then, the Pirates have continued to put the pedal on the metal. A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker have all been a huge part of the Pirates’ success. For the Brewers, they are hitting the do or die point in the season and must win crucial games if they stand any chance of making the playoffs. With the trade deadline looming, reports say multiple teams have interest in Zack Greinke, but as we’ve discussed before, we believe Greinke is here for the rest of the season. Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Norichika Aoki will look to continue their red-hot production in the second half.
RtB: Clearly the Pirates knew this success last year of being in the upper part of the division, but things didn’t end smoothly. How can the Pirates make the rest of 2012 successful?
Jeff: Despite their success, the 2011 Pirates still seemed to have that “deer in headlights” look to them, just trying to figure out how to win day to day and waiting for the other shoe to drop. The original catching duo of Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder both went through major injuries, leading the Pirates to use eight different backstops during the season. The silver lining to that mess was the trade for Michael McKenry, who has become a top-notch backup catcher in 2012.
The 2011 Pirates were tired and emotionally drained, and the road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia in late July was the nail in the coffin. The Pirates played a 19-inning game against the Braves on July 26, losing the game on a horrendous call at home plate by Umpire Jerry Meals. The next day, they played another long game – 10 innings – and the bullpen was basically spent. Unfortunately, they then had 14 straight days without a day off, further decimating the pitching staff. The Pirates went downhill, going 2-14 over that stretch. By the time they were able to catch their breath, they were 57-63 and 13.0 games back in the division.
This season has been different for several reasons. The veteran additions of Burnett and Rod Barajas have been invaluable. Barajas and McKenry are the keys to the pitching staff, and they do a great job of calling games and keeping their pitchers confidence up during tough innings. Burnett has been off the charts for the Bucs, besides his 10-2 record he has emerged as a true clubhouse leader. He was accepted by the fans and the city from day one, and in an environment where he has been able to relax, he has flourished. I can’t put into words how much he has meant to this season, and mainly because of his veteran presence. He has taken McDonald under his wing, which I believe has been a major factor to J-Mac’s emergence as a top line starter. Burnett has become everything in Pittsburgh that he could never be in New York, and I think he is the key to this entire team.
The Pirates depth is better too. We already mentioned the catching depth, but the bench is set up perfectly for this team, a credit to Clint Hurdle. Drew Sutton, Josh Harrison, and Casey McGehee have accepted their roles and all three enable Hurdle to mix and match as much as he wants because of their versatility. The bullpen has also gotten deeper with the addition of Brad Lincoln, who failed as a starter but has become a solid middle reliever. Jared Hughes, Jason Grilli, Juan Cruz, Chris Resop, and Tony Watson have exceeded their potential, and if one of them were to fall off, the Pirates have a slew of ready for the majors pitchers at AAA Indianapolis who could be called up tomorrow. Depth, depth, and more depth.
Pedro Alvarez has found his power stroke and has quietly developed into a fine defensive third baseman. Neil Walker continues to get better both at the plate and in the field. Andrew McCutchen – well, what can you say about a guy who is just reaching the tip of his ability and is a legit MVP candidate.
Most of all, this team has great chemistry. They play for each other, and they play for the fans. They understand how hungry Pittsburgh is for winning baseball, and now that they have seen what a great baseball town this is, they are excited to keep it that way.
RtB: How do you explain AJ Burnett? That kind of success is insane, especially after his past few years.
Jeff: Burnett is a very emotional guy. He seems to have a hard time putting bad starts behind him, so when the New York fans would boo him, it served no purpose than to further dismay him. He thrives off of positivity, and in Pittsburgh he has gotten that. There was an interview a week or so back where he talked about the fans. He had a rough start at PNC Park, and when he was taken out he was upset at himself. The sold out crowd gave him a standing ovation, not because of the start, but because we all understand the effort he has put into being a Pittsburgh Pirate. He is always the first guy out of the dugout to congratulate guys after a win. He is the first guy to approach another player when they make a mistake to give them a pep talk. He has become another coach, essentially.
From a play perspective, Burnett has changed his approach on the mound. He no longer tries to blow hitters away with his upper 90’s fastball, relying more of his off-speed stuff and changing speeds. He also has been able to keep his fastball down, which if you look at tape of him from the past few years in New York, he wasn’t doing. He has a renewed confidence in himself, and I think a lot of that credit goes to pitching coach Ray Searage. Furthermore I think a lot of that credit has to go to the fans of Pittsburgh, who embraced this guy as one of their own.
RtB: What’s been clicking the most with the Pirates this season?
Jeff: The pitching has been amazing, and having two ace starters like McDonald and Burnett has allowed Kevin Correia to just do what he does best – eat innings. Jeff Karstens will be a big piece of the puzzle as well if the Bucs keep it going. He was one of the most underrated starters in the game in 2011, and after missing a few months with an injury, he is fresh for the second half. Erik Bedard has been a flop, and the Pirates will probably be in the market for a starter before the deadline. The bullpen has been lights out, and the Bucs are undefeated in games they lead after seven innings. Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan have combined as a lights-out 8th/9th combo.
On offense, it all starts and ends with McCutchen. That’s the obvious news. What some haven’t realized yet is that Pedro Alvarez, Walker, and Garrett Jones are all having career years. If the Pirates obtain a bat at the deadline to play right field, their offense could be a top 10 NL offense. There is also the chance that they bring up top prospect Starling Marte from AAA, a guy who is as close to a McCutchen clone as you will find.
Ultimately, it comes down to Clint Hurdle. The way he manages is exactly what a young team needs. He keeps players in line, and isn’t afraid to bench them if they aren’t giving 100% (see Jose Tabata). He came to Pittsburgh with a plan, and the players have bought into it. They know that he has managed winning teams in the past, and they trust his knowledge and leadership.
RtB: Heading into this series with the Brewers, what are things that the Pirates must look out for?
Jeff: Obviously, Miller Park has been a house of horrors for the Pirates. There is a little incentive to this series, however. Being in first place, the Pirates know that if they take the series in Milwaukee, it will put the Brewers in a spot where they probably won’t be able to come back from.
The Pirates need to be careful of walks. The projected starters for the series are McDonald, Correa, and Burnett. All three can get into control trouble if they don’t have their best stuff, and walking guys ahead of Braun and Ramirez is the biggest thing they need to avoid. Both guys have a history of doing well against the Pirates, so keeping runners of base ahead of them is key. I am also concerned about Rickie Weeks. Obviously, he is having a down year, but with his talent he could turn it on at any time. His last 10 games before the break show that he is finding his stroke. Beware of taking his .199 BA lightly.
Hopefully, the series earlier this season got the Bucs over their fear of Miller Park. I believe that this series will end up having a major part in the final N.L. Central standings.
RtB: Do you feel that James McDonald was snubbed an All-Star spot?
Jeff: I feel that both Burnett and McDonald had the numbers to be All Stars, but they weren’t the only ones left out to dry. Tony LaRussa left the Reds Johnny Cueto off the roster, despite his amazing numbers. I believe that was a personal agenda rearing its head. As far as McDonald and Burnett, there were so many deserving pitchers this year, so I don’t feel they were “snubbed” , so to speak. It would have been nice for Burnett, since he has never been an All Star. McDonald is just coming into his own, so he will have plenty of chances to get there in a Pirates uniform.
Tonight’s match-up: 8:10 PM EST / 7:10 PM CST
McDonald (9-3, 2.37 ERA) vs Greinke (9-3, 3.32 ERA)
Tomorrow’s match-up: 7:10 PM EST / 6:10 PM CST
Correia (5-6, 4.34 ERA) vs Marco Estrada (0-3, 4.06 ERA)
Sunday’s match-up: 2:10 PM EST / 1:10 PM CST
Burnett (10-2, 3.68 ERA) vs Yovani Gallardo (7-6, 3.74 ERA)
Good luck to the Pittsburgh Pirates in this series. Thank you once again to Jeff Snedden of Rum Bunter (make sure you check them out) for taking some time out to answer some questions regarding the series. You can check out Jeff’s preview by clicking on this link. As always, go Brew Crew!