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Rockies vs. Pirates series preview: probable pitchers, game times, and a Q&A with Bucs Dugout

Eli Nellis joins us to preview the upcoming three-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Colorado Rockies (41-24, first place in NL West) have played 19 of their last 26 games on the road and have gone 15-9 in that stretch, including 13-6 on the road. Today they wrap up a stretch of 22 out of 29 on the road--their most trying stretch of the schedule--in Pittsburgh as they begin a three game set with the Pirates (28-35). After winning 280 games from 2013-2015, the Pirates won just 78 games last year and are currently fifth place in the National League Central.

The Rockies are 93-98 all-time against the Pirates, including a 41-57 mark in Pittsburgh and 22-35 at PNC Park. Last year the Rockies went 2-5 against Pittsburgh and they got swept in a three-game set (that was supposed to be four, but the last game didn’t get made up until June) at home in April. This is the first meeting between the clubs this year; the Pirates will visit Coors Field July 21-23.

We asked Eli Nellis, of our SBNation partner site Bucs Dugout, to answer some questions to help preview the four-game set.

Things haven’t really gone the Buccos way so far this season, though they do seem to have a puncher’s chance in an NL Central division that nobody seems to want to run away with. What has been good this season and is playoff contention still on the table?

I think you just brought up what’s been good—nobody’s pulled away with the division, so somehow the Pirates still have a chance. Outside of that, a lot has gone wrong for the Pirates. That’s probably it.

Some bright spots, though, have been Josh Harrison, David Freese and Adam Frazier on offense, Ivan Nova still pitching quite well and Felipe Rivero being electric out of the bullpen.

Andrew McCutchen seems to have had a rather precipitous fall from MVP in 2013 to below replacement level last year. His OPS+ is just 93 so far this year and he’s been moved out of centerfield. Does anyone know what’s going on with Cutch or is this just the new normal for him?

No, nobody really seems to have their finger on what the problem is, and yes, this could very well be the new normal.

Some people point out he isn’t using the whole field like he used to, while others say he’s lost something and may benefit from selling out for pull power. He might just have a lot of wear and tear. He generally puts on a good face, but there’s probably a psychological aspect to it, with offseason trade rumors and being bumped around the outfield—not the kind of treatment a superstar is used to—having some sort of effect. The problem probably isn’t one specific thing, it’s multi-faceted, and it doesn’t seem like it will all get figured out.

That said, Cutch has had a little uptick the last week or two. He has gone to the opposite field more often, depositing a walk-off homer just over the more friendly right-field wall at PNC Park on Memorial Day. It isn’t as though he hasn’t had decent stretches over the last year-plus, however. For a while, each time he had a good few games everyone wanted to proclaim he was officially back. At this point, though, I’ll believe it when I see it for an extended stretch.

Not to bring up bad memories, but what was the overall reaction to the Starling Marte suspension? Who has been filling in his spot in the outfield and when is he due back?

General disappointment. People were upset with Marte for being foolish and letting people down. I think the biggest thing was, Marte was just taking some 1980s-style steroid, not a modern PED that could be masked. It just seemed like a really bad lapse in judgment.

He’ll be back shortly after the all-star break, though he’s ineligible for the playoffs, if applicable.

Marte’s suspension did open up a regular spot for Adam Frazier, a guy who plays multiple positions and just kept hitting all the way up through the minors. Frazier’s gotten most of the playing time in Marte’s spot, which got him out of the fifth-infielder/fourth-outfielder limbo that would often see other bench players like Phil Gosselin or the departed Alen Hanson get starts over him. Frazier’s fallen off a little, but is still a pretty productive player (.296/.368/.414 through Saturday) that deserves regular playing time with this group.

Much like our own Chad Bettis this offseason, Jameson Taillon had a bit of a scare with testicular cancer earlier in the season. This was a shame because, at the time, he was putting together a rather impressive full-season debut. How was his season before the scare and how is how recovery?

Fortunately, it looks like they caught the cancer in time and he’s going to be OK, so that’s great news.

In six starts Taillon had a 20.1 percent strikeout rate and an 8.7 percent walk rate and was really looking to shake any second-year-pitcher issues that might hit. With other starters struggling, he was a really important part of the rotation.

The news of his cancer scare was a major blow, coming shortly after the Marte news (though any competitive issues are secondary to his personal health, obviously). Add to that Jung-Ho Kang’s offseason DUI issues and his inability to get back into the country, and it just seemed like everything bad was happening to the Pirates.

One pleasant surprise has been Ivan Nova, who is currently anchoring the pitching staff. He’s not generating a lot of strikeouts (4.7 K/9), so how is he doing it?

Nova just isn’t walking anybody (0.76 per nine going into Sunday’s start). For a while he had more complete games than walks, which was ridiculous. Nova didn’t appear to make any huge changes in mechanics or repertoire upon coming over from the Yankees last season—pitching coach Ray Searage is known for getting a lot of of retreads, but usually there are a couple noticeable tweaks. Instead, Nova’s just trusted his fastball. I usually don’t cite this sort of thing, but I think his confidence has really gone up with the move from New York to Pittsburgh, and that’s really helped him pound the zone with the fastball early in counts. He may be due for a little regression—his .274 BABIP is already up from what it was—but even with that factored in, Nova appears to be a sustainably successful starter.

What—or who—else do you hope Rockies fans know about this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates?

The bullpen is in a bit of flux, but I’m hopeful it’s being worked out in a good way.

Tony Watson was finally removed from the closer role last week. I think part of the reason he stayed there so long was Clint Hurdle wanted to keep fireballer Felipe Rivero in a more flexible, as-needed, seventh-/eighth-inning role. I certainly wanted Rivero in a role like that.

Since then Hurdle announced Rivero and your old friend Juan Nicasio would share ninth-inning duties, which I’m hoping is just traditional baseball speak for, “We’re going to use Rivero in the highest-leverage situations, whenever they come.” The first test came Saturday. Nicasio got into trouble in the eighth, and Rivero came on for four outs against the tougher part of the Marlins lineup to close the game out. Seeing that, I’m encouraged that Hurdle’s going to deploy his bullpen weapons more properly, rather than staplegunning Rivero to the ninth inning.

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Probable Pitchers and Schedule

Monday, June 12 @ 5:05 pm MT (ROOT Sports, 850 KOA/94.1)

Kyle Freeland (7-3, 3.34 ERA) vs. Jameson Taillon (2-1, 3.31 ERA)

For all the talk of Tyler Chatwood’s performance on the road this season, Kyle Freeland has been no slouch away from home. He is 4-0 with a 3.18 ERA, though his strikeout rate is just 4.8 K/9. In his last start against Cleveland he went 6⅓ with five strikeouts and allowed one run on six hits and--for the first time in his big league career--no walks.

Tuesday, June 13 @ 5:05 pm MT (ROOT Sports, 850 KOA/94.1)

Tyler Chatwood (6-7, 4.37 ERA) vs Gerrit Cole (3-6, 4.83 ERA)

Tyler “Road Warrior” Chatwood (4-3, 2.53 ERA, 0.971 WHIP in seven road starts) continued his dominance away from Coors on Thursday against the Cubs; he allowed one run on four hits and two walks over six innings in the win. In two June starts he has a 1.29 ERA and a 0.786 WHIP in 14 innings.

Wednesday, June 14 @ 5:05 pm MT (ROOT Sports, 850 KOA/94.1)

Germán Márquez (4-3, 4.44 ERA) vs Chad Kuhl (1-5, 5.63 ERA)

Márquez is coming off his shortest start of his career, lasting just three innings against the Cubs on Friday. He’s been battling a sore thumb and on Friday he also had to battle a sore umpire in allowing two first inning runs. Ryan Hanigan and Charlie Blackmon ended up bailing him out, but he’ll look to improve on his 7.88 ERA in two June starts.