ARLINGTON, Texas — The Texas Rangers are in for yet more interleague play and yet more travel as they head east to play the National League Central’s second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. This series represents an important stretch for Texas as they conclude the month of May, and the season’s first third on the road with a return to Arlington scheduled for the first series in June.
With the Houston Astros beginning to play up to their title of reigning World Series champions, it’s paramount that the Rangers don’t lose their way on the nine-game trip that begins in Pittsburgh.
This series marks the first time that Texas will play at PNC Park since before the pandemic, in 2019. The Rangers starters in those two games? Adrian Sampson and Shelby Miller. Hunter Pence was a member of the team, as were Asdrubal Cabrera and Jeff Mathis. It’s a different time, indeed.
Where Pittsburgh is coming from
The Pirates started out the season on an absolute tear as one of baseball’s early-season surprises right along with the Rangers. Pittsburgh finished April with an incredible 19-9 record, including a seven-game winning streak in the middle of the month. Their offense in the first month was slashing .264/.343/.449 with 34 homers. The pitching staff ERA was sitting at a respectable 3.55. They finished the month 1.5 games up on the Brewers in the NL Central with a run differential of +48.
The calendar switched to May and Pittsburgh was swept by baseball’s best team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Since May started, the pitching staff ERA has increased to 4.04. The offense features a dead-last slash line of .206/.287/.306. They are now one game back of the Milwaukee Brewers with a much smaller run differential of +17. Their record for the month is 4-13.
Last week, Pirates’ manager Derek Shelton attributed the fall from grace to a string of bad luck, but the truth is that the offense has fallen extremely flat, the starting pitching has only recorded six quality starts for the month, and the bullpen has not recorded a single hold or save in May.
Most recently the Pirates are coming off a series loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, two games to one. Similar to the Rangers, the Pirates’ bullpen couldn’t uphold their end of the bargain in the two losses after Pittsburgh won the series opener 13-3.
On Saturday, starter Mitch Keller threw six solid frames of two-run ball and was at only 84 pitches. Shelton made the decision to go to the bullpen, and they promptly gave up the eventual losing runs in the seventh. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh pitchers as a whole uncorked five wild pitches and the defense committed three throwing errors in an 8-3 loss.
Things to watch for
Game 47: 5:35 PM CT - RHP Dane Dunning (4-0, 1.69 ERA) vs. RHP Luis L. Ortiz (0-2, 5.63 ERA)
Game 48: 5:35 PM CT - RHP Nathan Eovaldi (5-2, 2.83 ERA) vs. LHP Rich Hill (4-3, 3.80 ERA)
Game 49: 11:35 AM CT - LHP Martin Perez (5-1, 4.01 ERA) vs. RHP Johan Oviedo (3-3, 4.69 ERA)
One plus for Texas is they will miss right-hander Keller (5-1, 3,02 ERA) during this series. The former top 20 prospect has finally matured for Pittsburgh in his third full season in the big leagues and has been one of the NL’s best starters so far this season.
Instead, in the opener, the Pirates will send rookie Luis Ortiz to the mound against de facto Jacob deGrom surrogate Dane Dunning on Monday evening. Ortiz, who pitched in four games for Pittsburgh last year and wasn’t recalled until two series ago, has given up seven hits in both of his starts, pitching just eight innings total, while giving up five runs. Dunning, for his part, has been outstanding since taking deGrom’s place, pitching to a 1.69 ERA.
Tuesday’s contest will feature a showdown between veterans Rich Hill and Nathan Eovaldi. Hill, the 43-year old lefty, has a 3-0 record during his career against the Rangers with a 3.81 ERA, but in two starts against Texas last year, Hill pitched just 10 innings and gave up seven runs.
This current iteration of Rangers is far more indicative of the type of lineup that Hill will be facing. Corey Seager is hitting .375 in eight at-bats against the veteran, while Nathaniel Lowe has a .400 average in five at-bats.
Meanwhile, the 33-year old Eovaldi saw his scoreless streak halted at 29 ⅔ innings in a start last week against the Atlanta Braves in a game that saw the righty out-duel NL Cy Young contender Spencer Strider but one that Texas eventually lost due to a malfunction by the bullpen.
The finale sees the Cuban righty Johan Oviedo go against Martin Perez, who is coming off of a rebound performance last Friday against the Rockies. Veteran outfielder and face of the Pirates Andrew McCutchen has a .353 average against Perez in 17 career at-bats.
Texas will not face Pittsburgh first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who strained his hamstring shortly after the start of the season. Choi, who previously played for the Rays, Yankees, and Angels had a .250 batting average against the Rangers, with 12 hits, four homers and nine RBI.
The Rangers will also not see young star shortstop Oneil Cruz. The 24-year old was sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, after producing a .450 slugging percentage in his first season. Cruz fractured his ankle in Spring Training and isn’t expected back with the Bucs until August.
There’s a reason that Pittsburgh was able to end April in first place; all of the elements needed to win are present. However, they are headed in the complete opposite direction as the Rangers at the moment. This three-game set will see the major league’s current worst offense going against a pitching staff that ranks top five and an offense that paces the league going up against a Pirates team that won’t have their ace this series.
Pittsburgh manager Shelton might be looking for the baseball gods to throw some luck the Pirates’ way this series but, on paper at least, Texas just needs to keep the wind at their backs.
Do you think the Rangers will be able to build upon their winning streak in Pittsburgh? Share your predictions with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.