The Pittsburgh Pirates came to town as one of the biggest stories in baseball as they vie for a surprising NL Central title.
The Philadelphia Phillies, however, have used this weekend to show the upstarts how powerful a perennial contender can be.
Pittsburgh (54-51) has done well to remain in the Central race for most of the season, but this trip to Philadelphia (67-39) could signal a downturn in those hopes. The Pirates, trying to avoid a 19th straight losing season, have been outscored 17-7 in losing Friday and Saturday.
The Phillies, who are on course for their fifth straight postseason berth, have 12 extra-base hits including four homers among 27 hits in this series.
Howard went 4 for 4 with a homer, two doubles and three RBIs in Saturday’s 7-4 victory. It marked the Phillies debut of Hunter Pence(notes), who batted fifth and had an RBI single in five at-bats after he was acquired from Houston on Friday.
“It helps having a guy like Hunter Pence in the lineup,” Howard said. “He’s another threat pitchers have to worry about. He brought a lot of energy and fits in great in this clubhouse.”
The right fielder is very familiar with the Pirates, hitting .433 over his last 27 games against his former division rivals.
“Put Pence between Howard and (Raul) Ibanez and you pick your poison,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has managed 12 hits - one homer - in the series after facing Roy Halladay(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes). The Pirates have lost seven of 10 to fall into third place in the Central, 3 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee.
Things may not get easier in Pittsburgh’s first look at Vance Worley(notes) (7-1, 2.02 ERA), who has posted a 1.24 ERA in winning his last five starts. He has a 1.14 ERA in his last seven outings, with the Phillies winning all of them.
The rookie right-hander pitched a three-hitter for his first complete game in Tuesday’s 7-2 victory over San Francisco.
“I’m not out there thinking too much,” Worley said. “I’m just going with the pitches I had.”
Runs could also be hard to come by for the Phillies against Jeff Karstens(notes) (8-5, 2.41), who has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 17 starts. He yielded three over five innings Tuesday in the Pirates’ infamous 4-3, 19-inning loss at Atlanta.
The right-hander has a 4.15 ERA and no decisions in two career starts against the Phillies. Pence is 8 for 19 with a homer against him.
Karstens is 1-5 with a 3.55 ERA in day games this year.
The Pirates are in need of some offense, and acquired first baseman Derrek Lee(notes) from Baltimore late Saturday. Lee, who had been playing in New York and might be available Sunday, hit .246 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for the Orioles.
“They are playing good. They turned it around, so good for them,” Lee said of the Pirates. “It would be exciting if we won the World Series.”