With the Dodgers set to open a series this weekend against the Pirates, coupled with the final third of the season starting on Friday, the postseason seems closer than ever. The Dodgers are on pace for 93 wins and the Pirates are on pace for 95, meaning their scheduled meetings in August and September could be followed by a follow up in October.
With added importance to this weekend series, this calls for a bit of an expanded preview, so here are a few things to note about the Pirates.
Don't vote for Kodos
The best free agent signing of the offseason just might have been Jung Ho Kang, the 28-year-old Korean infielder who signed with the Pirates for a paltry $11 million over four years. Total.
Kang is hitting .291/.362/.446 with eight home runs and 17 doubles on the season, and since the break has been even better at .369/.414/.662 with four homers in 18 games.
The Pirates have used Kang all over the left side this season with 42 starts at third base and 29 more at shortstop, though since the acquisition of third baseman Aramis Ramirez, Kang has settled in at shortstop, starting the last 10 games there.
Kang is hitting .278/.381/.500 against left-handers, so with Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood starting this weekend Kang will be a key factor for Pittsburgh.
What a relief
The Pirates are second in the National League with a 2.84 bullpen ERA, and just traded for Joakim Soria to set up closer Mark Melancon, the latter with a 1.41 ERA and a league-leading 34 saves in 35 opportunities this season.
Arguimedes Caminero, besides having a great name, has been the Pirates' version of Yimi Garcia but with more walks. Caminero has 54 strikeouts in 49 innings to lead the Pirates pen, but also has 18 walks and allowed six home runs, for a 4.04 ERA.
Tony Watson from the left side has been quite effective in 2015, with 49 strikeouts and only nine walks in 48... innings, and has been even more effective against right-handed batters, holding them to .206/.239/.294 with 37 strikeouts and five walks.
When ahead at the start of the eighth inning this season, the Pirates are 52-1.
The Dodgers have stolen the fewest bases in the league (22) and have been caught stealing more times (24) than they have been successful. But if there was a weekend for the Dodgers to run, this might be it.
Francisco Cervelli has had a fine year at catcher filling in for the loss of Russell Martin, hitting .300/.368/.411, but no catcher in baseball has allowed more steals in 2015 than Cervelli's 66. He has caught 21 would-be stealers, for a 24.1-percent rate.
The Pirates as a team have allowed 95 steals, most in the National League, and have caught 31 runners.
But there are many factors involved here, with most of the damage done with pitcher A.J. Burnett on the mound. He has allowed 28 steals in 36 attempts this season. Only Cubs starter Jon Lester has allowed more steals (30).
Gerrit Cole has allowed 39 steals against him in 50 attempts since the start of 2014. He starts Friday night, but the Saturday and Sunday starters have gotten better at limiting the running game this season.
Francisco Liriano allowed 19 steals in 24 attempts in 2014, but this year has only had seven attempts against him, with five successful. Likewise for Charlie Morton, who had runners steal 14 bases in 18 attempts in 2014 but has limited his opponents to just five attempts this season in 13 starts. All five have been successful.
All eyes on McCutchen
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the star of the team, and rightfully so. The 2013 National League MVP is having a typically excellent McCutchen-type season, hitting .291/.389/.497 with 25 doubles and 16 home runs, numbers that only pale in comparison to his last three seasons.
But one thing to note about McCutchen is that he is hitting .400/.500/.738 with runners in scoring position this season, with six home runs and seven doubles in 110 plate appearances. Among major leaguers with at least 50 plate appearances with RISP in 2015, McCutchen ranks fourth in OPS, tied for third in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging percentage.
With two outs and runners in scoring position, McCutchen is 15-for-34 (.441) with eight extra-base hits and nine walks.