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Series preview: Pirates face Seattle Mariners' tough hitters, struggling rotation

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Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates head to Seattle for a rare series against the Mariners today. Here's what to expect from this two-game set.

Game times and probables

Today, 10:10: Jon Niese vs. Hisashi Iwakuma
Wednesday, 10:10: Jameson Taillon vs. Wade Miley

The Mariners are 38-38 so far, but they're 8-17 in June, mostly because their rotation has been bleaker than an Alice In Chains album. Felix Hernandez has been out the last several weeks with a calf strain. The pitchers they've called upon to fill spots haven't nailed down jobs (including former Pirates prospect Adrian Sampson, who made one start before going down for the year with a flexor bundle strain), and some of the regulars haven't pitched well either, including the two the Pirates will face this week.

The 35-year-old Iwakuma is in the midst of a career-worst season in the big leagues, with a 4.45 ERA and peripherals to match. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and his ground ball rate is way down, from 50.4 percent last year to 39.8 percent. His average fastball velocity has slipped slightly every year since his US debut, and is now down to 87.9 MPH, tough territory for a righty. He has a fun repertoire, though, with a splitter that can be filthy and an occasional slow curve to go along with a four-seamer, sinker, cutter and slider.

The left-handed Miley, acquired in an offseason deal with the Red Sox, hasn't pitched well in Seattle so far, with a 5.28 ERA that's somewhat worse than his peripherals. Like Iwakuma, he's nominally a ground-ball guy who hasn't done as good a job as usual this season keeping the ball on the ground. He's returning from a brief stint on the DL due to a shoulder impingement.

Position players

C Chris Iannetta, Steve Clevenger
1B/DH Adam Lind
1B Dae-Ho Lee
2B Robinson Cano
SS Ketel Marte
3B Kyle Seager
LF Seth Smith
CF Leonys Martin
DH/RF Nelson Cruz
OF Franklin Gutierrez
UT Shawn O'Malley

A good group overall. Cano is in the midst of an excellent bounce-back season, and Cruz and Seager have also been big contributors. The Mariners have also gotten big production from Lee, a hulking 34-year-old first baseman who's in his first MLB season after over a decade as a slugger in Korea and Japan, and Gutierrez, a 33-year-old who was previously known mostly as an excellent defensive outfielder but who's spent the past two seasons mashing in part-time duty. Another key to the Mariners' season has been Martin, who hit so badly with the Rangers that they essentially gave up on him despite his youth and his consistently excellent work in center field. This season has been his best offensive year in the majors, and he's produced 2.0 fWAR as a result. Lind and Marte have not worked out quite as well so far, and the Mariners recently had to demote 34-year-old Nori Aoki to the minors, but they must be happy with the work they've gotten from their hitters so far this season.

Bullpen

Steve Cishek
Joaquin Benoit
Vidal Nuno
Mike Montgomery
Nick Vincent
Edwin Diaz
David Rollins
Donn Roach

The Mariners will need to make a roster move to make space for Miley on Wednesday, so it's possible not all these pitchers will be here throughout the series. Anyway, the Mariners' bullpen has struck out batters at a higher rate than anyone but the Yankees and Red Sox this year, but has also allowed a bunch of fly balls and contributed to the team's June swoon, thanks to a ridiculous 1.94 home runs per nine innings this month.

Nonetheless, there's talent here. You're probably familiar with Cishek (who's rebounded nicely after an off-message 2015 season with the Marlins and Cardinals) and Benoit (who, at 38, appears to finally be showing his age, with 5.5 BB/9 so far). But some of the other arms are more exciting. Diaz is the guy you really want to watch for -- the Mariners promoted the 22-year-old from Double-A earlier this season, and he's whiffed 19 batters in his first 11.1 big-league innings while reaching into the upper 90s with his fastball. Yee-haw. Then there's Montgomery, a failed former Royals and Rays prospect with a big arm who's taken very well to relieving. Also watch for Vincent, who's homer-prone and somewhat velocity-challenged but drives righties nuts.