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Play-in game strategery: Liriano or creative Plan B

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CHICAGO – After Wednesday’s loss the Pirates are almost certainly headed toward a play-in game against Cincinnati on Tuesday, the only question is where the game is to be played.

 

Unless the Cardinals lose three straight against the Cubs – percentage chance? – and the Pirate or Reds sweep their three-game series beginning Friday, we’re headed to a Pirates-Reds, play-in. The Pirates have to win this weekend’s series to host.

 

That means Clint Hurdle will face his most important decision of the 2013 season: what will his pitching plan be against the Reds?

 

On the surface it seems straight forward, Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the play-in game on Tuesday. The Reds’ best three hitters are left-handed and Liriano entered Wednesday holding opposing left-handed hitters to a .309 OPS the lowest single-season mark in baseball history. Yes, baseball history.

 

Open and closed case, right?

 

No so fast.

 

If the game is played at Great American Ballpark, I wonder if these numbers will give Hurdle pause: Liriano’s home ERA is 1.47 this season. His road ERA? 4.32. Liriano allowed four runs in five-plus innings Wednesday. He’s had three road starts in the second half where he’s failed to pitch into the fifth inning. He’s had a 10-run and a 7-run outings away from PNC Park in second half.

 

If the Pirates host a play-in game, Liriano is a no-doubt pick as a starting pitcher He’s been automatic at pitcher-friendly PNC Park. But if the game’s played at Cincinnati?

 

I debated the question with Grantland.com’s Jonah Keri this afternoon:

 

 

 

 

So if the game is played at Cincinnati and it’s not Liriano then who?  My modest proposal would to be to go with a highly unconventional approach: begin the game with two innings each from lefty relievers Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon (who has reverse splits meaning he’s actually better against LHH).

 

Hurdle could then close out the game with three innings from Liriano. If the Reds counter with right-handed pinch-hitters in the game, AJ Burnett, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole are on standby.

 

Watson, Wilson and Melancon have all been dominant against left-handed hitting. The Reds are loaded with talented left-handed hitters.

 

Start the game with a reliever? It’s not unheard of. In fact it happened in Pittsburgh in 1990 when Pirates manager Jim Leyland started closer Ted Power in Game 6 of the NLCS.

 

In an elimination game, all hands are on deck. It’s an unusual situation but it’s a situation that can be an opportunity for a savvy manager. And the Pirates’ wealth of lefty-silencing relievers gives Hurdle a creative uption and a competitive advantage.

 

-TS

 

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