Pirates-Marlins Preview

After a week of pedestrian run totals, the Pittsburgh Pirates used an early offensive explosion to put themselves into position to win a fourth straight series.

Gerrit Cole would certainly appreciate if those bats have a bit more left in them.

Cole takes his sixth crack at what's become an elusive 15th victory Thursday night as he tries to help the visiting Pirates win three of four from the Miami Marlins.

Pittsburgh (76-49) totaled 27 runs over its previous seven games before riding a six-run second inning to Wednesday's 7-2 win. Andrew McCutchen hit a three-run homer in the second after a run-scoring double in the first, his fourth consecutive multihit game and seventh in his last nine, and he boosted his major league-leading average with runners in scoring position.

''Look at the batting average with runners in scoring position (.394),'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''Cutch is always looking to improve. You get guys on in front of him and that gives him more opportunities.''

McCutchen is 20 for 46 (.435) with three homers and five doubles in his last 12 games against Miami.

''This guy was the MVP,'' Marlins manager Dan Jennings said. ''He's a special talent.''

Cole (14-7, 2.49 ERA) hasn't been bad in the second half with a 3.00 ERA - his 2.53 FIP since the All-Star break is sixth in the NL and better than it was in the first half (2.80) - but some less-than-stellar defense and a lack of support haven't made things easy on him.

The Pirates have backed Cole with just 13 runs in his seven starts since the All-Star break. Cole left with a lead Saturday after holding San Francisco to three hits and an unearned run over seven innings, but the bullpen gave it up before Pittsburgh walked off with a 3-2 win.

Cole allowed homers to Justin Bour and Christian Yelich and five other hits while lasting seven in a 5-2 win over the Marlins (51-76) on May 27. Yelich is 3 for 8 with a pair of homers off Cole.

The Pirates will get their first look at Justin Nicolino (2-1, 3.77), the third straight left-hander they'll face in this series. Nicolino has pitched into the seventh in three of his five major league starts, lasting 7 2-3 and allowing two runs before Miami's bullpen faltered in the ninth of Saturday's 4-2 loss to Philadelphia.

''It was a frustrating loss to waste that quality of a start by the kid,'' Jennings said. ''Nico pitched a tremendous ballgame.''

Nicolino retired the first hitter he faced in all eight innings, dropping opponents' average against him leading off an inning to .194.

"That was the biggest thing, getting the leadoff hitter every inning," Nicolino told MLB's official website. "We let the defense work. ... We executed both sides of the plate with the fastball. The cutter was working a lot better, probably the best it's been all year."

The cutter is one of four pitches Nicolino throws - along with a fastball, changeup and curve - and it's been by far his most effective. Opponents are hitting .150 against that pitch, and he needs it to work because he doesn't miss many bats.

Of the 381 pitchers in baseball to pitch at least 30 innings this season, only Mark Buehrle has induced a lower swing-and-miss percentage than Nicolino's 12.4.

MLB batting leader Dee Gordon got the night off Wednesday, but should be back for the finale and could pose a problem on the basepaths. Gordon stole four bases Tuesday to raise his season total to 45 and Cole's 22 stolen bases allowed are the fourth most in the majors.

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