The Pittsburgh Pirates will get their first look at the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-game series that starts tonight. Here are three matchups to watch for in the series.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are on a high after sweeping the Chicago Cubs in their first series against the champs. Can they continue with the good vibes in a three-gamer against another NL Central club in the St. Louis Cardinals? The answers lie in part within these three matchups to watch.

David Freese vs Mike Leake

We will start with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best hitter through the season’s first two weeks. David Freese has jumped out to a .344/.488/.594 slashline through the season’s first 11 games. Over his 41 plate appearances, Freese has taillied nine free passes while striking out just four times. It all adds up to a change in approach that has been a welcome sight for Freese, who had the highest strikeout rate of any regular last season.

Freese will be seeing Leake at the right time. For his career, Freese has tagged Leake to the tune of a .536/.552/.750 slash. His 15 hits against the Cardinals’ right-hander include three doubles, a home run and six RBI. he has struck out just twice against Leake with one walk on the books.

In many ways, this is a rubber meets the road type of matchup. Freese comes in with excellent history against Leake, while Leake comes in with a sterling start his own to the 2017 season. Over his first 15 innings of 2017, Leake has allowed 10 hits while giving up a lone earned run over two appearances.

Ivan Nova vs. His Curveball

Though his first two starts, Pittsburgh Pirates starter Ivan Nova has dropped his curveball usage in half over last year’s figure, down to 14.89 percent from last year’s 28.46 percent rate.

Nova’s fastballs – the four seam and sinker – have picked up the slack, but Nova might do well to bring out the bender in a few spots in the series opening game. Here is a look at how the Cardinals did against curveballs in 2016:

While the eyes might be drawn to the blue chunk of the pie – 40.9 percent of curveballs seen by the Cards ended up as balls – the important number to note is that the Cards tagged just 112 hits against heavy breakers in 2016. If Nova can bring out the curve in the right spots in the count, it could be an unexpected wrinkle the Cards might not be expecting, if they choose to take his usage in 2017 thus far as gospel.

Cardinals Hitters vs. Pittsburgh Pirates’ Elevated Pitches

If you’ve read our pages anytime over the past month or so, you likely saw our study on the Pirates’ usage of the upper third of the strike zone. If you did not see that, here’s the TL;DR version:

The Pirates did not use the upper third much in 2016, and all signs point to increased usage in 2017.

We have seen that play out thus far in the new season, with the team ranking seventh in all of MLB with a 9.98 percent usage rate for this area of the zone. Expect this trend to continue, as the Cardinals do not do particularly well against these elevated pitches:

Though the Cardinals have landed 8.4 percent of these pitches for hits, the team’s combined called strikes/whiff percentage of 37.7 percent likely means the Pirates will stay the course with what they have shown in the season’s first 12 games. This may come down to a battle of each team’s respective scouting departments, and which counterpunch will land the squarest.

Over the past several seasons, there seems to be a high amount of drama each time the PIttsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals meet. These three matchups may very well provide the most stirring story lines in the first 2017 clash between the clubs.

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)