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Series Preview: Pirates vs. Cubs

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the Pirates head into the final seven games, it’s hard to know what to make of this truncated 2020 season.

How much credence do you put into poor performances turned in by, well, pick a name. Had the club played 162, would Bryan Reynolds, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman – and the rest – have eventually found their respective strokes? Or – in the case of Reynolds and Newman – was 2019 just a mirage?

I’m not sure how to evaluate the individual performances of the 2020 Pirates, who drag a 15-38 record into today’s opener of a four-game series with the Cubs at PNC Park. Not just offensively, but on the mound as well. I went into the season expecting at least decent seasons from Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams, but neither has met those expectations. I had high hopes that Mitch Keller would take a step forward in his development, but aside from an outstanding performance Saturday night against St. Louis, a strained left oblique has dashed those hopes.

One bright spot – at least for a while – was Erik Gonzalez, who spent the first month or so of the season shuttling between third base and shortstop before essentially winning the everyday shortstop job. Gonzalez, reputed to be an above-average fielder, did not disappoint in that regard, but it was his hitting that opened some eyes. Through the first week of September, Gonzalez boasted a .288 batting average and slugged at a .466 clip for an OPS of .781.

I would be plenty happy with those numbers if my regular shortstop posted them on a consistent basis – particularly if he can pick ‘em the way Gonzalez can.

But over the next 11 games, Gonzalez’s offensive performance went into a steep decline. In 39 plate appearances, he managed just five hits and one RBI, striking out 14 times while walking just once for a batting average of .128 and a paltry .329 OPS.

For the month of September as a whole, through Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, Gonzalez had only 15 hits in 63 at-bats (.238) and struck out 19 times while walking just three times.

Heading into the final full week of the season, Gonzalez stands at .255 with three home runs and 19 RBIs, and a .683 OPS.

So, what are we to make of the 29-year-old Dominican Republic native? For a while there, it seemed as though Gonzalez was a lock to be the Pirates’ opening-day starter at shortstop next year and maybe for the next few years, at least until Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Oneil Cruz or Ji-Hwan Bae – all ranked among the club’s top dozen prospects – is ready to take over.

But Gonzalez’ late-season struggles now have me wondering. Should Cole Tucker, who at one time figured to be the club’s shortstop of the future but who has spent this season in the outfield, re-enter the shortstop picture? Or should Newman, who handled the position adequately last year but who took a major step backward this season both offensively and defensively, be given a chance to win his job back?

The shortstop puzzle will be one of many that Ben Cherington and his regime will have to solve during the long offseason. But before we get there, the club still has a handful of games to play, including four this week with the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.

The series starts at 7:05 p.m. today, followed by two more 7:05 p.m. starts, and then concludes with a 1:35 p.m. date Thursday.

The Pirates’ rotation for the series will see JT Brubaker open Monday’s game, followed by Steven Brault – coming off a career-best performance Thursday – Williams and Chad Kuhl, whose outing Friday was undone by an ugly sixth inning that resulted in his third loss in four decisions.

Jon Lester (2-2, 4.91 ERA) will oppose Brubaker in Monday’s series opener. The Cubs had not designated a starter for Tuesday’s game, but Kyle Hendricks (6-4, 2.93 ERA) is slated to open Wednesday’s matchup. Alec Mills, a 28-year-old right-hander who no-hit the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 13 but gave up four earned runs in six innings in a loss to the Twins on Saturday, is slated to start Thursday’s series finale. He’s 5-4 with a 4.14 ERA this season.

Brubaker is coming off his best outing as a big leaguer, having given up five hits and a walk and one earned run in five innings in a 2-1 loss to the Reds Wednesday. Brubaker is 1-2 with a 4.79 ERA in nine games, seven of which are starts.

Brault had the start of his life Thursday in a 3-1 win over the Cardinals, limiting the Redbirds to two hits while walking two and striking out eight in his first career complete game. Brault enters the game with a 1-3 mark and a 4.04 ERA in 10 games, nine of which are starts.

Williams brings an ugly 1-8/6.70 ERA line into Wednesday’s start while Kuhl is 1-3 with a 5.03 ERA in his comeback season from Tommy John surgery.

The Cubs enter the series atop the NL Central with a 31-22 mark and are 6-4 in their last 10 games. Although they haven’t officially clinched anything yet, the club appears on its way to postseason play.

The Cubs’ traditional big boppers have not been responsible for the club’s fine season so far. Kris Bryant, who missed two weeks with a hand injury but returned to the lineup on Sept. 1, owns a .588 OPS with two homers and five RBIs. Javier Baez hasn’t fared much better with a .205 batting average and a .606 OPS. Kyle Schwarber, who was pulled from Sunday’s loss to the Twins after misplaying a ball in left field, checks in at .190/.699 and Anthony Rizzo is hitting just .212 with a .718 OPS.

Carrying the club offensively has been Pittsburgh native Ian Happ, who is hitting .264 with a .910 OPS in his first 52 games. Happ has slugged a team-leading 12 homers and driven in 28. Jason Heyward is at .290/.914 with six homers and 22 RBIs.

On the mound, Yu Darvish leads the rotation with a 2.22 ERA and a 7-3 mark. Kyle Hendricks isn’t far behind with a 2.93 ERA and a 6-4 record.

All four games will be broadcast on AT&T.