UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
The Strike Zone

The Week Ahead: NL Central upheaval, dueling lefties and top performers

Matt AdamsMatt Adams looks to keep his hot start going in a key series with the Pirates this week. (Icon SMI)

Series To Watch: Cardinals (7-5) at Pirates (6-6)

After opening the season 1-5 with just eight runs scored in those six games, the Pirates took two of three from the Diamondbacks in Phoenix last week, then swept the Reds over the weekend to move past Cincinnati into second place in the National League Central just one game behind the Cardinals, who open a three-game set at PNC Park Monday evening.

In each game against the Reds, Pittsburgh pushed across the winning run against the Cincinnati bullpen, capping the series by overcoming a 5-0 deficit with four runs in the seventh and six runs in the eighth for a 10-7 win on Sunday afternoon. That newfound ability to stage a rally could prove significant in this series as the Cardinals bullpen has struggled with closer Jason Motte on the disabled list.

Moved from his customary set-up role to the ninth-inning, Mitchell Boggs has blown two of his four save chances and, upon entering the ninth inning of a tied game on April 8, retired just one of the eight men he faced, with the other seven ultimately coming around to score. Rookie fireballer Trevor Rosenthal, who initially seemed positioned to be a ninth-inning alternative to Boggs, has struggled as well, blowing two saves in the eighth inning in the season’s first week, and giving up two runs in the eighth to set up Boggs’ most recent blown save on Sunday. All together, the Cardinals’ bullpen, which was a problem early last year as well, has posted a 6.09 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP and been charged with three of the team’s five losses. By comparison, the Pirates’ bullpen, led by closer Jason Grilli and set-up man Mark Melancon, is 3-0 with a 2.36 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and has blown just one save while converting five.

Here are the pitching matchups and game times for this series (all times Eastern):

Mon. 4/15, 7:05 pm: Lance Lynn (1-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. James McDonald (1-1, 3.75 ERA)

Tue. 4/16, 7:05 pm: Jake Westbrook (1-1, 0.00 ERA) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (0-2, 12.96 ERA)

Wed. 4/17, 7:05 pm: Shelby Miller (2-0, 1.46 ERA) vs. A.J. Burnett (0-2, 3.71 ERA)

Other series to watch: Royals @ Braves, Diamondbacks @ Yankees

Pitching Matchup To Watch: Wade Miley (2-0, 2.13 ERA) vs. CC Sabathia (2-1, 2.25 ERA), Wednesday, 7:05 pm

There are other pitching matchups with more marquee value this week (see below), but none of those pitchers have been as effective in the early going as Miley, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year runner up, and Sabathia, who recovered from his typical rough outing on Opening Day to allow just two runs, one earned, in 15 combined innings against the Tigers and Orioles in his last two starts and has not allowed a home run yet this season. These two southpaws face off in what is one of just three series this week between two teams who enter the week with winning records (the others find the Royals at Atlanta, the only series this week between two first-place teams, and, surprisingly, the Mets in Colorado).

Miley has never faced the Yankees before. In fact, the only member of New York's current roster whom he has faced is reserve outfielder Ben Francisco, who is 1-for-6 against the Arizona lefty. Sabathia has faced the Diamondbacks just once in his career, that coming way back in his sophomore season of 2002. He does have fairly extensive histories against some current D-backs, particularly former Blue Jay Aaron Hill, who is 3-for-28 with a home run and a pair of walks against the big lefty, but, like Hill, none have had much success against him.

Other pitching matchups to watch:

Tue.: Jeremy Guthrie (2-0, 3.55 ERA) vs. Kris Medlen (1-1, 1.50 ERA)

Wed.: Max Scherzer (1-0, 4.91 ERA) vs. Felix Hernandez (1-2, 3.05 ERA)

Thur.: Matt Cain (0-1, 5.94 ERA) vs. Yovani Gallardo (0-1, 6.61 ERA)

Thur.: Adam Wainwright (2-1, 2.05 ERA) vs. Cole Hamels (0-2, 7.56 ERA)

Thur.: Chris Sale (1-1, 5.21 ERA) vs. R.A. Dickey (1-2, 5.82 ERA)

Players To Watch:

Prince Fielder is the hottest hitter in baseball right now. Over the course of an active nine-game hitting streak, he has gone 16-for-30 with four home runs, four doubles, 10 walks and just five strikeouts for a .533/.628/1.067 line and over the weekend, he went 7-for-11 with four extra-base hits, two of them homers, against the A’s. The major league leader in batting average (.429) and RBIs (19) will have Monday to rest, after which the Tigers open up a three-game set against the Mariners in Seattle. The first pitcher Fielder will face will be Aaron Harang, making his 2013 debut.

Fielder may be the game’s hottest hitter, but Alex Gordon owns the game’s longest hitting streak, having hit in 11 straight games since going 0-for-3 on Opening Day. Gordon, who drew a walk on Opening Day, and has thus reached base in every game this season, has hit .396/.408/.542 over the course of his streak with six multi-hit games, including a pair of 2-for-5 performances against the Blue Jays in his last two contests. He’ll look to continue his streak against Kris Medlen and the Braves on Tuesday.

Speaking of the Braves, one of the best stories coming into this season just keeps getting better as Evan Gattis continues to seize the opportunity created by Brian McCann’s offseason surgery. Gattis went 4-for-8 with a home run in his first two major league games and has since established himself as an everyday player for the Braves, going 6-for-19 with three more homers in their last five games and even drawing a start at first base last Friday in order to keep his bat in the lineup. The 26-year-old Gattis is now hitting .324/.385/.735 on the season and could force the Braves to make a difficult decision when McCann and Freddie Freeman both return from the disabled list, which could happen before the end of the month.

On the subject of rookies, 20-year-old Marlins righty Jose Fernandez has allowed just one run in 11 innings while striking out 13 in his first two major league starts and will take the hill again on Thursday against the Reds, who will likely be starting a rookie of their own in 23-year-old lefty Tony Cingrani, who is expected to take Johnny Cueto’s place in the rotation while the Cincinnati ace is out with a latissimus dorsi injury.

Another starter worth watching this week is the GiantsBarry Zito. Thus far this season, only the Braves’ Paul Maholm has thrown more innings without allowing a run than Zito, who went 7-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his final eight starts last year (three of which came in the postseason) and has pitched seven scoreless innings in each of his first two starts this year. If Zito throws 6 2/3 soreless innings against the Brewers on Tuesday, he’ll pass Maholm, at least temporarily, for the longest scoreless streak to start the 2013 season.

You can plan ahead to watch Fernandez and Zito, but you'll have to be on your guard to catch Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams. The slugging prospect hasn't cracked the Cardinals' loaded lineup on a regular basis yet this season, but he has a hit in all five games he has appeared in, collected multiple-hits in all four games in which he has had multiple plate appearances and homered in each of his last three games, with one of those home runs coming in a pinch-hitting appearance. He's now 11-for-18 (.611), slugging 1.222 and a must-watch at-bat right now.

Finally, given all of the Caridnals bullpen problems, manager Mike Matheny admitted on Sunday that he might turn to Edward Mujica the next time a save opportunity arises. “Right now, Mujica’s making good pitches and getting the big outs when we need them,” said Matheny after Boggs blew another save on Sunday.

More The Strike Zone

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.