Posted April 29, 2013

The Week Ahead: Surging Pirates, Hot Corner reinforcements and AL aces

Colorado Rockies, Justin Verlander, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Yu Darvish
Russell Martin, Pirates

Russell Martin has led Pittsburgh’s offensive revival that has the Pirates in first place in the NL Central. (Getty Images)

The 2013 baseball season turns a month old on Wednesday as the calendar flips to May. As early season fluctuations begin to yield to long-term trends, here are five things to watch in this, the fifth week of the 2013 season.

1. The Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates open the week in first place in the National League Central and tied for the second-best record in the National League, just a half-game behind the Braves. Since opening the season 1-5, Pittsburgh hasn’t lost a series, going 14-5 (.737) against a steady stream of quality teams (the Diamondbacks, Reds, Braves, Phillies, and Cardinals twice). Over that span the Bucs swept three games from the Reds, took three of four from the Braves and went 3-2 against the Cardinals, moving past them into first place in the Central with a pair of victories in St. Louis over the weekend which Pittsburgh won by the combined score of 14-3.

After scoring just eight runs in their first six games, the Pirates have scored 4.7 runs per game in their last 19 (roughly what the Cardinals and Reds have done on the season as a whole) and they’ve allowed just 3.5 runs per game over the entire season, a mark bettered only by the Rangers and Braves in all of baseball. I wrote about the latter last week, identifying the Pirates’ overworked bullpen and team defense as the primary reasons that they’ve been so successful at keeping runs off the board, but 25-year-old lefty starter Jeff Locke, who beat the Cardinals on Sunday to move Pittsburgh into first place, has now had two consecutive scoreless starts, dropping his season ERA to 2.83 and joining Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett as Pirates starters off to strong starts.

In the lineup, catcher Russell Martin started the season 0-for-17, and 2-for-31, but has gone 15-for-39 (.385) with three home runs in 11 games since and is hitting .267/.345/.547 on the season. First baseman Garret Jones has been nearly as hot, hitting .370/.435/.611 in 62 plate appearances over the last three weeks. The team’s most valuable regular thus far, however, has been sophomore leftfielder Starling Marte, who has been a large part of the team’s outstanding performance in the field while leading the NL in hits (32) and steals (seven in nine attempts) and hitting .323/.391/.444 on the season.

The Pirates open this week with three games in Milwaukee from Monday through Wednesday followed by a three-game weekend set at home against the Nationals starting on Friday. Key pitching matchups to watch are Rodriguez vs. Yovani Gallardo on Monday and Locke vs. Stephen Strasburg on Saturday.

2. Aramis Ramirez’s return to the Brewers

The Brewers’ season has had a similar shape to that of the Pirates. After opening 2-8, they ran off nine straight wins to surge into the NL Central race before dropping three of their last four, including two of three to the Dodgers over the weekend. Still, they enter the week a game over .500, just two games behind Pittsburgh in the Central, and are expected to welcome third baseman Aramis Ramirez back to their lineup sometime this week.

Ramirez sprained his left knee running the bases on April 5 and has been on the disabled list ever since. The injury made Yuniesky Betancourt an everyday player for Milwaukee, but while Betancourt has provided a welcome source of power in Ramirez’s absence (four home runs, .507 slugging), he has otherwise been a steady source of outs for the competition (via a .288 on-base percentage) and is clearly due for a fall (the 31-year-old has never slugged above .418 over a full season). Ramirez, meanwhile, hit .303/.361/.525 over the last two seasons (a good representation of his production over the last nine) and had hit in every game this season prior to his injury. With Corey Hart out for at least another month, Rickie Weeks once again having trouble getting going, and Norichiki Aoki having gone ice cold after a hot start, the Brewers could use a reliable source of production like Ramirez back in the lineup in order to keep pace in what is now a four-team race in the Central.

After hosing the Pirates for three games, the Brewers welcome the Cardinals to town on Thursday for a four-game set.

3. Nolan Arenado’s first week in the majors

Speaking of keeping pace, the Rockies are one of the two teams tied with the Pirates for the second-best record in the NL (the Diamondbacks are the other), but they are currently holding their breath over the shoulder injury suffered by oft-injured superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on a play at the plate on Sunday. Tulowitzki’s return to health is one of the major differences between last year’s last-place Rockies team and this year’s first-place squad. The long-awaited arrival of 22-year-old third baseman Arenado, the team’s top prospect, won’t off-set the potential loss of Tulowitzki completely, but it could help.

Arenado, who made his major league debut on Sunday with a walk in four trips, isn’t supposed to be a stud, but he was raking at Triple-A Colorado Springs this month (.364/.392/.667) and hit .299/.345/.473 in four-plus minor league seasons. What’s more, the man he’s replacing, Chris Nelson, hit just .242/.282/.318 before being designated for assignment, setting the bar low for Arenado to register as an upgrade.

Arenado and the Rockies will play three against the Dodgers in Los Angeles Monday through Wednesday before heading home for a three-game weekend set against the Rays starting on Friday.

4. Justin Verlander’s thumb, velocity and run support

Justin Verlander is not normally a source of concern for the Tigers. Indeed, after five starts this season he has a 1.95 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings. However, his velocity has been way down this season, with his fastball averaging 92.5 miles per hour thus far compared to 95 mph last year and roughly 96 in the three years before that. He also left his last start with after just 96 pitches due to a blister on his thumb.

Verlander remains on schedule to take his normal turn on Tuesday against the Twins, but even if he continues to pitch well despite the blister and the velocity drop, there’s still the fact that the Tigers aren’t scoring for him this year. Despite that 1.95 ERA, Detroit is just 2-3 in Verlander’s start having twice failed to score a single run in games he started and averaging just 2.74 runs per 27 outs while Verlander has been the pitcher of record this season. That lack of run support for their ace is what has the Tigers in second place in the AL Central looking up at the Royals coming into the week.

5. Jon Lester vs. Yu Darvish

This pitching matchup should put a nice cap on the week coming on Sunday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. Eastern. The 18-7 Red Sox and 16-9 Rangers enter the week with the two best records in the majors and Lester and Darvish have been major parts of that early success. Darvish, who opens the week with another solid pitching matchup again Jose Quintana (2-0, 2.78) and the White Sox on Tuesday, is currently fourth in the AL with a 1.65 ERA, third in the majors with a 0.80 WHIP and leads the majors with 49 strikeouts and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He also hasn’t allowed a home run in five starts covering 32 2/3 innings. Lester hasn’t been as dominant, but he has thus far rebounded nicely from an awful 2012 campaign, going 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over his first five starts. He’ll face Brandon Morrow (0-2, 5.27) and the Blue Jays on Tuesday before locking horns with Darvish and the Rangers in Texas on Sunday.

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