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On The Horizon: Cubs vs. Pirates

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In the first of many important N.L. Central road series, the 6-5 Cubs will play four games against the 6-6 Pirates in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates are coming off a three game sweep against the Brewers.
The Pirates are coming off a three game sweep against the Brewers.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After getting off to an early lead in Sunday's game, the Cubs could not hold onto it and  lost to the Padres 5-2, in so doing losing their first series of the season.  On the bright side, Jon Lester proved that he is not afraid to throw to first base -- even if his glove joins the ball.  The Cubs are looking to bounce back off of a series that they could have won if a few things went the other way.

What to know about the Pirates:

The 6-6 Pirates are coming off of a sweep over the Brewers. The Pirates are 11-3 in their last 14 games at home dating back to last season.  After finishing last season with a record of 88-74 and finishing in second place in the N.L. Central for the second straight year, the organization looks to have a breakthrough season in 2015. The team has one of the best young trios in their outfield in Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte,and Gregory Polanco.  They also have two potential No. 1 starters on their staff, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.  With a veteran skipper in Clint Hurdle and above-average players at most of their positions, the Pirates have all the tools needed to be one of the best teams in the league.  A key factor for the Pirates will be switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker, who is a solid defender and a great small ball hitter.

The biggest offseason change for the Pirates comes behind the plate, as Russell Martin left to head north to Toronto. Pedro Alvarez will need to prove to his teammates that he can help out the offense as he also transitions to first base after playing mostly third for several seasons.  Finally, Josh Harrison, who is the Pirates' primary leadoff hitte,  will need to prove that his All-Star season in 2014 was not a fluke.

The Pirates were swept by the Reds to start their season and since then have gone 6-3, with five of those wins coming against the Brewers. Quick injury note for the Pirates -- shortstop Jordy Mercer left Sunday's game in the sixth inning after getting hit in the chest by an 89 mile per hour fastball from Matt Garza.

Probable Pitching Matchups:

Game One: A.J. Burnett (0-1, 2.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) vs. Jake Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA, 1.02 WHIP)

Game Two: Francisco Liriano (0-1, 2.08 ERA, 0.77 WHIP) vs. Travis Wood (1-1, 2.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)

Game Three: Vance Worley (1-1, 5.84 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) vs Jason Hammel (1-0, 5.11 ERA, 1.30 WHIP)

Game Four: Jeff Locke (2-0, 1.93 ERA, 0.86 WHIP) vs. Kyle Hendricks (0-0, 6.10 ERA, 1.16 WHIP)

Predictions:

The Cubs have been a favorite Pirates opponent in recent years (they've gone 6-14 against the Pirates over the past two seasons, for example).  I predict the series will split, two wins each, and the Cubs will win the first and third games of the series. Arrieta will help the Cubs bounce back on the mound against Burnett, who is 7-4, with an ERA of 3.25 against the Cubs in 13 starts.  But it is going to be tough to get the offense going against Liriano, whose loss came against the Tigers where all he gave up was a solo homer to Rajai Davis, which allowed the Tigers to win the game 1-0.

The series could come down to who can score with runners in scoring position as well as whose offense can get going first as the Cubs are batting .230 as a team while the Pirates are at .221.

Next Up:

Three-game series at Cincinnati, with Lester still looking for his first win.