Are the Pittsburgh Pirates real contenders or just
pretenders? That question might be answered during the next week.
The Bucs begin a 7-game road trip that takes them through Atlanta and Philadelphia,
the top two clubs in the National League with some of the game's best pitchers.
It all starts Monday in Atlanta
with ESPN broadcasting the series opener between the Pirates and Braves (7:00
According to the MLB money line, Pittsburgh
has little chance of beginning the trip on a winning note with Atlanta -200 chalk. Game 1 of the 4-game
series has a 7-run total.
That Clint Hurdle has the Pirates above .500 warrants at
least some respect even if the baseball odds don't show it for this game. In fact, Pittsburgh is well-respected by those betting
them; the Bucs' +15.5 units this season lead the MLB betting charts.
Granted, they're in a weak division where being five games
above .500 is keeping them right there with the leaders. The NL Central standings are a virtual 3-way
tie with the Pirates and Cards a percentage point ahead of the Brewers.
Hurdle will send young James McDonald (6-4, 4.15) to the
mound to open the trip and the series.
Two trends in his favor are Pittsburgh emerging victorious in all three
of his July starts (2.45 ERA, 18 K, 18.1 IP) and the Pirates 4-0 in his last
four games outside PNC Park (2.55 ERA, 20 K, 24.2 IP).
McDonald has turned around his poor start to '11 to become
one of Hurdle's most reliable starters.
The Pirates are 8-3 with him on the mound since May 19 at Cincinnati, McDonald's
ERA a sparkling 2.84.
One of the defeats in that span came when Atlanta
swept a short 2-game series in Pittsburgh
in late-May. McDonald didn't figure into
the decision and pitched well enough to win allowing just two runs in six
innings of the Braves' eventual 4-2 triumph in 11 innings.
Tim Hudson (9-6, 3.39) is just the first of five very tough
arms the Pirates will face in the coming week.
They will also see Tommy Hanson on Tuesday followed by Jair Jurrjens
before taking on Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in Philly this weekend.
is coming off a fine performance at Coors Field last Wednesday only to not get
much help from his lineup in the Braves' 3-2 loss as even-money underdogs. It stopped a 3-game win streak for the Georgia
righthander, also ending a 3-game OVER stretch.
The Braves come home after a 3-4 road trip that included
Sunday night's 4-3 loss in Cincinnati.
Despite owning baseball's fourth-best record at 59-43, Atlanta sits six games behind the Phillies in
the NL East Division.
Fredi Gonzalez's club does own a top-notch home record,
however, with a 30-19 mark this season and 86-44 since the start of the 2010
campaign. The Braves swept the Pirates
in a 3-game series at Turner Field last season and have won eight of the last
11 head-to-head collisions with the Bucs.
A couple of injury notes include Chipper Jones (knee)
possibly being activated for Monday's game.
third baseman has been missing in action since just before the All-Star
Game. Alex Presley, who has been playing
left field for the Pirates while regular Jose Tabata recovers from a quad
injury, is nursing a left thumb bruise and may not be available for Monday's
Warm and humid will prevail in Atlanta throughout the series, with current
forecasts calling for a 60% chance of rain the first two days. Jeff Karstens is slated for Pittsburgh when the series continues Tuesday.