A pair of pitchers riding through roller-coaster seasons will square off on Saturday afternoon at PNC Park, seeking a smoother track.
Both the Brewers' Matt Garza and the Pirates' Edinson Volquez enter the day aiming to sustain promising recent results. Volquez, who was sensational to start the season before running into a rough patch, has been pitching well again, holding opponents to a .194 average and a 2.81 ERA over his last three starts. Garza, who was nearly unhittable in his Brewers debut before struggling through most of his next nine starts, is coming off a scoreless, 6 1/3-inning win over the Twins.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has his fingers crossed that Garza will find a groove. Lately, the National League's first-place pitching staff has not been as sharp.
"Yeah, it's not so automatic like it was, that everybody was having a great outing," Roenicke said. "I still think they're doing a good job of keeping us in ballgames. The offense, obviously, has been great for 2-3 weeks, and they're keeping us at a point where that offense is able to take over and we get some wins."
The pitching trend continued to point downward after Kyle Lohse tied a career high with eight runs allowed over five-plus innings as the Brewers dropped the series opener to the Pirates, 15-5.
"It's hard to figure out exactly why. A lot of times there's reasons," Roenicke said of the pitching funk. "There can be fatigue, and all of a sudden you get in a period where you don't have the strength. ... It's not like you're hurting, but you don't have that strength in your arm to repeat pitch after pitch. Sometimes it's confidence. And then sometimes there's other issues going on that you don't quite know about. There's so much that comes into it. The mind's got to be really good to perform at this level and to repeat at this level, and if everything isn't really good there, then you start struggling."
Volquez's struggles came from April 27-May 17, when he went 0-3 with an 8.31 ERA in four starts. But he's rebounded in his last three games, surrendering no more than two earned runs in any of them and picking up two of his three victories in the process.
Brewers: Staying the course at first base
With Aramis Ramirez back at third base Friday for the first time since suffering a strained left hamstring on May 10, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay fell back into a right-left platoon at first base. The Brewers love the defense both players have provided, and Reynolds has supplied some power.
But the Brewers entered the day ranked 14th of the 15 National League teams in OPS from the first base position, leading some to speculate about a run for free agent Kendrys Morales, who is truly free now that Day 1 of the Draft is in the books. Before Thursday, a team signing Morales would have had to surrender a pick.
Assistant GM Gord Ash was asked to characterize the club's interest in Morales, a Scott Boras client.
"There's certainly been discussions, but I wouldn't say there's been any resolution to those discussions," Ash said. "It's just part of exploring options and players that can help us."
Several factors work against a union between Morales and the Brewers, most notably his position. Because the Brewers are in the NL, he could not serve as designated hitter on a regular basis, as he has done since suffering a terrible left ankle injury celebrating a winning grand slam in 2010. Some question Morales' mobility and durability at first base because of lingering effects from that injury.
Pirates: Remembering Draft day
Thursday night, 74 high school and college baseball players across the country felt exuberant and relieved as they heard their names called during the first and second rounds of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
It's a feeling Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is very much familiar with. Hurdle was the ninth overall selection of the 1975 Draft, selected by the Kansas City Royals.
Hurdle, a high schooler with a letter of intent to play baseball and football for Miami (Fla.) at the time, said he knew he could potentially hear his name that day 39 years ago, but nothing was certain.
"I had an outside idea that I would get drafted that day, anyway," Hurdle said. "... But they had never come out and said, 'You're going to be the guy.' It was a very special day. My family was around, not like today, but it was special in its own right back then."
A utility player, Hurdle went on to debut for the Royals in 1977 and had a .259 career average in 515 games during a 10-year career.
Hurdle's current team made four selections Thursday night in Cole Tucker, Connor Joe, Mitch Keller and Trey Supak. Hurdle has actually already had one interaction with Tucker, a high school shortstop who was the Bucs' first pick at No. 24 overall. In January, Hurdle spoke at Tucker's Mountain View High School for a fundraising event.
• Pirates left fielder Starling Marte was out of the starting lineup for the third straight game Friday. Jose Tabata, who has been historically successful (14-for-33) against Brewers starter Kyle Lohse, started in his place and went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Marte entered Friday as a pinch-hitter and went 0-for-1 but drove in a run on a groundout. He is in the midst of a 1-for-25 slump, is hitless in his last 20 at-bats and his average has dropped to .234, its lowest mark since April 27.
"Starling went out again today and did some really good early work," Hurdle said before the game. "We think we're on to something. Another day of reps is not going to hurt him by any means."
• Rehabbing Brewers reliever Jim Henderson is beginning to ramp back up after a setback on his rehab assignment two weeks ago.
"He did some plyo work yesterday and reported feeling much better on the first day this time than on the first day last time," Ash said. "So we'll look at that as progress."
• Left-hander Wei-Chung Wang underwent postgame tests Friday after being struck near the right knee by a Travis Snider single in the eighth inning. Roenicke expected further information Saturday about Wang, who remained in the game after the incident.