Jon Niese is on the mound for the third of four games in Colorado today, taking on Jon Gray (as an aside, why do we say things to the effect of "one pitcher taking on the other"? The only direct contact they're going to have is when one bats against the other, and that's only true in the NL and also generally result in the most unexciting at-bats of the game. This should be written as something more along the lines of "Jon Niese is taking on Nolan Arenado and some bums and Jon Gray is taking on a murderer's row of baseball cyborgs designed to get on base with greater frequency than any humans".)
Niese is looking to win his fifth straight start (going back to last season with the Mets), which would match his career high. He’s simplified his repertoire this year, decreasing his usage of his curveball and changeup compared to the last two seasons (and his career averages) and also increased the usage of his fastball compared to the last season and a half:
Niese has looked like a mid-rotation starter thus far with a high ground ball percentage of 47.9%, pretty close to his 49.9% career line. Keeping the ball on the ground is key in Colorado, although Niese hasn’t had success there in the past. Jon Gray is his mound opponent, who was a highly touted prospect for some time and had 10 strikeouts in his previous start. Lots of strikeouts would have scared me with the Pirates’ lineups in the past few years, but not this year with an offense that’s seeing a large number of pitches and getting on base a lot.
The Pirates have their most standard lineup today. Andrew McCutchen had one of the best games of his career yesterday, but one game does not a season make. Building off of his hot hitting performance yesterday is going to be key to getting him back in mid-season form. Look at the progression of his batting average last year and specifically, how it trends up after the 3-for-5 game on May 6. Obviously the depths of McCutchen’s early-season slump this year are not nearly as low as this season, but the needed trend remains the same. Cutch’s performance yesterday was great, but buying into it will require another week or two of strong performances.
Getting the series win tonight would secure a winning record on the long road trip, which would be nice heading into a 15-game stretch against NL Central opponents (including two series against the Cubs and one against the Cards). First pitch is at 8:40pm EDT tonight.