Interleague play typically serves as little more than an opportunity for the Pittsburgh Pirates to lose games to teams they’re less accustomed to seeing.
Right now, they feel like they can beat anyone.
Enjoying a rare June trip to the plus side of .500, the Pirates look for a season-high fifth straight win Friday night as they bring the NL’s best road record to Cleveland for a series against the free-falling Indians.
Pittsburgh (35-33) has baseball’s worst interleague winning percentage (.377) since the AL and NL began going head to head in 1997, which isn’t much of a surprise considering it hasn’t exceeded 75 victories since 1999.
In all, the Pirates have suffered through 18 consecutive losing seasons, but they’ve done enough in the first 2 1/2 months of 2011 to at least begin to believe that epic streak of futility could end.
More than anything, they’ve improved away from PNC Park. After tying a major league record-low with 17 road wins in a 105-loss 2010, Pittsburgh improved to 20-15 away from home - and completed its first three-game sweep - by beating Houston 5-4 on Thursday afternoon.
The Pirates are three games out of first in the NL Central, the closest they’ve been to the top of the division this late in a season since trailing Houston by 2 1/2 games Sept. 9, 1997.
Cleveland (36-31) is one game out of first in the AL Central, but that’s a scenario that would have seemed disastrous a few weeks ago. The Indians held a seven-game lead on Detroit on May 23, but the Tigers are back in first after taking two of three from Cleveland at Comerica Park with Thursday’s 6-2 victory.
The Indians have lost 11 of 14, batting .199 and totaling 30 runs in that span.
They’ll try to snap out of their funk at the plate against a pitcher who’s benefited from Pittsburgh’s road success more than anyone. Kevin Correia (8-5, 3.73 ERA) is a major league-best 7-1 with a 2.42 ERA in eight starts away from PNC.
He fell to 1-4 with a 5.54 ERA at home after Sunday’s 7-0 loss to the Mets. Correia pitched six shutout innings, but gave up one run in the seventh and three in the eighth.
The right-hander has never faced Cleveland.
The Pirates have never seen Josh Tomlin (7-4, 4.14), either, but they might be excited to face him Friday considering the righty has given up six runs in three consecutive starts. He surrendered a career-high 12 hits in Sunday’s 9-1 loss to the Yankees.
Pittsburgh is 15-12 against Cleveland, one of only two AL clubs it’s beaten more often than not.
The Indians ended a disappointing road trip Thursday afternoon with a 6-2 loss in Detroit. They went 2-5 on the trip, losing three of four in New York and two of three in Detroit.
During the course of the trip, the Indians were nearly no-hit by Detroit's Justin Verlander. They were held to two runs or less in five of the seven games.
Cleveland was shut out twice on the trip, held to one run twice and to two runs once. The dismal road trip was the continuation of an even longer slump that dated back to May 24.
At the start of play that day, the Indians were 30-15, and they were in first place in the AL Central Division, seven games ahead of second-place Detroit. Since then, they are 6-16, and they have fallen into second place in the division, one game behind the Tigers.
The Indians' biggest problem was and continues to be a lack of offense. In losing 16 of the last 22 games, Cleveland has scored two runs or fewer 15 times. The Indians have been shut out six times in that span.
Following the loss Thursday in which the Indians scored two runs on three hits in the first inning and no runs on two hits in the last eight, manager Manny Acta expressed his frustration. "Guys don't seem to be making any progress getting out of their slumps," he said. "Some of these guys are in three-month slumps. That's not a good sign."
C Carlos Santana was moved from the cleanup spot to the No. 2 spot in the order three games ago, but the change doesn't seem to have had much effect on his season-long slump. He was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts Thursday, and he was just 4-for-29 (.138) on the Indians' seven-game road trip, dropping his overall average to .216.
RHP Joe Smith continues to be solid out of the bullpen. Smith, who pitched a scoreless inning Thursday, has not allowed an earned run in his last 13 innings, covering 14 appearances, lowering his ERA to 1.29.
RHP Josh Tomlin will try to keep his historic streak alive Friday night when he starts against the Pirates. Tomlin is the only player in Indians history to pitch at least five innings in his first 25 major league appearances. That's the second-longest such streak in the majors since 1920.
C Lou Marson continues to throw well behind the plate. Marson has thrown out 10 of 19 attempted base-stealers, a success rate of 52.3 percent that leads all major league catchers.
RHP Chris Perez is second in the American League with 17 saves, but his 2.49 ERA is only the fifth best in the Indians' stellar bullpen. Perez's ERA is higher than those of LHP Tony Sipp (2.22) RHP Vinnie Pestano (1.52), LHP Rafael Perez (1.32) and RHP Joe Smith 1.29.
By The Numbers:
5—Games during the Indians' seven-game road trip in which they scored two runs or fewer.
Quote To Note:
"Some of these guys are way too talented to be struggling for two or three months."
—Manager Manny Acta, on the numerous players in the lineup who are battling slumps.
DH Travis Hafner (strained right oblique) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 18. He began a rehab assignment with Class AA Akron on June 14, and he could be activated during the weekend of June 17-19.
RHP Alex White (sprained right middle finger) went on the 15-day disabled list May 21, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on June 8. He is expected to be out until July or August.
OF Trevor Crowe (right shoulder surgery in March 2011) went on the 60-day disabled list March 30. He will be out until at least late July.