If you thought the Dodgers have had a frustrating start to their season, they have nothing on the Pirates, who begin play Friday at 34-39, five games out of the second wild card spot with four teams ahead of them.
PNC Park has been the home of the Wild Card Game for each of the last three seasons, with the Pirates turning around two decades of futility with a three-year run comparable to anyone in the National League. After not finishing .500 for a record 20 straight seasons, Pittsburgh won 280 games from 2013-2015, two more than the Dodgers and second-most wins in the NL.
The only NL team with more wins in the last three years was the Cardinals with 287. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, St. Louis happens to be in the same division.
In 2016 the Cardinals are ahead of the Pirates again, and both are well behind the juggernaut Cubs. For Pittsburgh to make a fourth straight playoff appearance in 2016, it's going to have to be as a wild card team again. But first they need to turn things around.
Pittsburgh just dropped three of four games to the Giants at home, where the Pirates have lost seven of their last eight games. The Pirates have dropped 20 of their last 26 games overall.
One key to the Pirates' early demise has been the pitching. The club has a 4.57 team ERA, and over those last 26 games it's 5.54.
Pirates starting pitchers rank 12th in the National League with a 4.73 ERA and 14th with a 4.86 FIP, and average just 5.58 innings per start, which ranks 11th in the league.
Not helping is ace Gerrit Cole, the former No. 1 pick out of UCLA who is currently on the disabled list with a right triceps strain. He is technically eligible to return Sunday but he's not yet ready so the Dodgers will miss him in this series. Cole, who has a 2.77 ERA, is still just throwing off flat ground, with no timetable just yet for returning to the mound, per Sarah K. Spencer of MLB.com.
The struggling rotation provided an opening for Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 who was dominating in Triple-A to the tune of a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts for Indianapolis with 61 strikeouts and only six walks in 61⅔ innings. The right-hander has a 3.50 ERA in his first three major league starts, and starts Friday's opener.
The Dodgers will counter with right-hander Nick Tepesch, up from Triple-A to take Mike Bolsinger's spot in the rotation. Tepesch, who made 39 starts for the Rangers in 2013-2014 then missed 2015 with elbow problems, has a 3.66 ERA in 14 Triple-A starts this season, including a 2.00 ERA in three starts with Oklahoma City, with 17 strikeouts and just three walks in 18 innings.
The outfield has been an expected strength for Pittsburgh, hitting a collective .281/.351/.462, second in the NL in OPS and first in doubles (59) and stolen bases (31). Amazingly, the weak link has been annual MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, hitting just .238/.315/.401.
Right fielder Gregory Polanco (.298/.378/.519, 23 doubles, 10 home runs) and left fielder Starling Marte (.328/.370/.494, 18 doubles, 20 steals) have more than picked up the slack.
Another player the Dodgers will have to deal with this season is Jung Ho Kang, back with a vengeance after suffering a torn meniscus and broken left leg in a takeout slide last September. That injury caused him to miss the first 28 games of 2016 as well, but since then he is hitting .267/.329/.557 with 10 home runs in 40 games, after hitting 15 home runs in 126 games in 2015.
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli is expected to be out for roughly another month with a broken left hand, taking out his .373 on-base percentage from the lineup. In fairness, his .293 slugging percentage is also out, but the other three catchers on the roster (Chris Stewart, Erik Kratz and Jacob Stallings) have hit a combined .165/.254/.257 in 122 plate appearances.
During this current 6-20 skid by the Pirates, they are hitting just .228/.293/.363 overall, averaging just 3.42 runs per game. They have been outscored 147-89 in their last 26 games.
There's still a good team in these Pirates. They just happen to have a bad record, and aren't playing well at the moment, and with no Cole and no Cervelli this weekend creates an opportunity for the Dodgers.
Time: 4:05 p.m. PT
TV: SportsNet LA, MLB Network