8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Money Line: St. Louis -160, Run Line: 8.5
National League Central Rivals meet tonight at Busch Stadium as the St. Louis Cardinals host the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second entry of a four-game set. After a over an hour-long delay, Pittsburgh (42-41, 3rd in NL Central) took the first game of this series on Independence Day, besting the Cards in a 4-2 affair highlighted by a pair of home runs from Gregory Polanco (.297 BA, 85 H, 50 R, 24 2B, 12 HR, 50 RBI), including a two-run dinger in the Sixth Inning followed by a solo shot two innings later. On the mound, Ryan Niese (7-6, 4.87 ERA) didn’t last very long, just 5.2 innings, but did enough to hold off the hosts, relinquishing just one run on seven hits, with three strikeouts and a walk. Fortunately, the Bullpen continued to impress, picking up the slack, as the triumvirate of Arquimedes Carminero, Juan Nicasio, and Neftali Feliz permitting one run on a pair of hits in 3.1 innings of labor, with Feliz earning his first Save of the campaign. Monday’s victory was the Pirates’ fifth in a row, which coincidentally have all come on the road. Clint Hurdle’s charges have indeed been a resilient group of late, fighting their way back over .500 for the first time since June 15th, as injuries have riddled their roster, particularly the rotation. Starters Gerrit Cole (5-4, 2.77 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (1-1, 3.74 ERA) have both been languishing on the Disabled List, the former landed on the 15-day DL on June 14th with a strained right triceps, while the latter is finally scheduled to make his first simulated start after taking a line drive to his face back on May 23rd. As you can imagine, Hurdle has had to get creative with his pitching staff, which leads us tonight’s starter, the young Steven Brault, who is scheduled to make his first career start after being called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, in relief of yet another DL-destined hurler, Jameson Taillon, who has been ordered to rest his ailing shoulder. In nine Minor League starts this season, Brault is 2-3 with a solid 3.00 ERA, and is thought of very highly throughout the Pirates’ organization. The young Lefthander is described as crafty, and adept at changing speeds, with a fastball that has been recorded in the low 90’s. With that said, look for Hurdle to keep a short leash on this kid, for he has all the confidence in his Bullpen to finish the job, and why wouldn’t he? Before giving up a run in the Ninth Inning of Monday’s win, Pittsburgh’s cadre of Relievers had strung together a MLB-best thirty-four scoreless innings. Mark Melancon (0-1, 1.35 ERA) has been a rock as the Closer, earning twenty-four Saves in thirty-six appearances, striking out twenty-eight opponent in 33.1 innings of work, compared to a mere eight Walks. Furthermore, his Strikeout/Walk Ratio (3.50) is tops on the team, while his Strikeouts per Nine Innings Average also checks in at a stellar 7.6. However, the injury bug has also extended to the offensive side of things where Catcher Francisco Cervelli (.257 ERA, 43 H, 19 R, 21 RBI) is also on the 15-day DL with a broken left hamate bone, while the aforementioned Polanco has been fighting through a nagging hamstring. Former MVP Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.236 BA, 74 H, 45 R, 15 2B, 12 HR, 32 RBI) must pick up the pace as the All-Star Break looms; the 29-year old’s .236 Batting Average is the lowest of his career, while his On-Base Percentage (.309) and Slugging Percentage (.406) also represent career lows.
Meanwhile, sitting just a game and a half ahead of the Pirates in the division standings are the Cardinals (43-39, 2nd in NL Central), who with Monday Night’s loss saw a three-game winning streak snapped. Despite hosting a division rival on the 4th of July, the effort that St. Louis put forth could only be described as sluggish, as their Lineup couldn’t get anything going against Pittsburgh’s Ryan Niese, or the group of relievers that followed him. Mike Matheny’s charges were a dismal 9-of-36 at the plate, with juts a pair of hits while striking out nine times. In fact, apart from Second Baseman Matt Carpenter (3-of-4, 2B, 2 RBI), the hosts were downright terrible getting on base in just eight of thirty-two opportunities. Compounding problems of late has been their sudden inability to take advantage of struggling pitchers. Let’s be honest, at 7-6 with a 4.87 ERA, Niese is far from an imposing figure on the mound, but nonetheless continued the trend during the Cards’ current nine-game homestand of a flagging pitcher with an ERA over 4.80 holding them to two runs or fewer. Simply put, if there’s blood in the water, a Shark has to eat. Bad analogies aside, this has become a pattern that Matheny must figure out sooner rather than later. For his efforts, Carlos Martinez (7-6, 2.90 ERA) put together a solid start, yielding three runs on nine hits over the course of seven innings, with seven strikeouts opposed to one walk, yet failed to receive enough run support to really make the difference. Heading out to the bump tonight for St. Louis is Mike Leake (5-6, 4.13 ERA), who given his track record against the Pirates could be precisely what the doctor ordered for Matheny and his crew. Leake is 9-4 lifetime against Pittsburgh with a strong 3.13 ERA in twenty-six starts, while claiming victory in eight of his last nine starts against them. With that said, the Cardinals haven’t been very fortunate of late with him on the mound, losing in six out of the last eight instances that the 28-year old Righthander has taken the mound, including each of the last three occasions. In his most recent start, a 4-2 loss against the Royals, Leake put in seven innings of work, yielding three runs (two earned) on five hits, with four strikeouts compared to one walk. Granted, during the month of June the seventh-year veteran relinquished thirty-eight hits in 29.2 innings of labor, but miraculously walked a scant three batters. On the season, Leake has only permitted seventeen bases on balls, by far and away the fewest in the rotation, leading to a very healthy Strikeout/Walk Ratio of 3.71.