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Long Way Down: Phillies at Pirates, April 28-30, 2006

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April 28: Pirates 3, Phillies 1 WP: Snell (1-2) LP: Myers (2-1) S: Gonzalez
April 29: Pirates 3, Phillies 2 WP: Maholm (1-3) LP: Lidle (2-3) S: Hernandez
April 30: Phillies 5, Pirates 1 WP: Floyd (2-2) LP: Perez (1-4)

In addition to their disappointing starts and Keystone State homes, the Phillies and Pirates share something else in common: both teams are suffering through the growing pains of young pitchers. As the ERAs above indicate, Pittsburgh's rotation woes almost make the Phils look good: no Pirate starter has an ERA below 4.50, and the team lacks both a hypothetically steadying veteran presence like Jon Lieber and an eviddently emerging rotation anchor like Brett Myers, who goes for his third straight win in the series opener. Victor Santos, whom the Phils won't see this weekend, is the graybeard of the Pirates rotation at age 29; Zach Duke, the 23 year-old lefty who dazzled the Phillies with seven innings of shutout ball last July but also will be a spectator in this series, has been its best starter with a 1-2 record and a 4.50 ERA.

But while the results haven't arrived yet for Jim Tracy's young hurlers, few doubt their talent. Ian Snell, the 24 year-old righty who faces Myers on Friday night, went 48-20 with a 3.10 ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3.5 to 1 in five minor-league seasons. Paul Maholm, Saturday's starter, had a less extensive minor-league track record but posted the same 3.10 ERA and went 3-1, 2.18 in six late-season starts with the Pirates in 2005. And Sunday pitcher Oliver Perez, a lefty with electric stuff who came over in the 2003 Brian Giles trade, racked up 239 strikeouts in 196 innings for Pittsburgh a year later. All three arms have struggled with control in the early going this year; the series should provide a good test for a Phillies lineup that has struggled to work deep counts and keep pressure on pitchers through the club's first 21 games.  



With the Pirates at 5-18 and entering the series on a 7-game losing streak, this series might appear to be a fourth straight "should-win" series for the Phils. Clearly, though, the Pirates are a better team than their results thus far have indicated. They can hit a little, too: Craig Wilson, furnished an opportunity with the injury to starting first baseman Sean Casey, is batting .297 with 7 home runs and a 1.097 OPS, while shortstop Jack Wilson appears to be back to his 2004 form--or better--with a .329 average and 4 homers through the early going. Slugging outfielder Jason Bay is batting just .267, but has drawn 21 walks and boasts a .914 OPS.

At some point this season, Pittsburgh's talent young rotation will cohere and the team will begin to string together some wins. The still-struggling Phillies just have to hope that time isn't now.