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Play-in game strategery: Liriano or creative Plan B


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’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.






  1. BarryVanBonilla says:

    A tremendous idea, and one Clint Hurdle would self-immolate before he implemented.

  2. Leo Walter says:

    Barry,I couldn’t agree with you more ! Hurdle would quit bubble gum for the rest of his life before he would ever try anything that far outside his box. He can’t even fid it in himself to pull a veteran starter when it is apparent to every one watching what is going to happen. ( see 6th inning,yesterday’s game for an example )

  3. Derek Smith says:

    I like it. All hands on deck in my opinion. How about this though, win 2 out of 3 in Cincy! Let’s hope! This is gonna be fun, though. I think many fans won’t have much of their finger nails left after these next few days.

  4. NMR says:

    I think Jonah made an important point when he brought up the predictive nature of both sides of the debate. After all, that is exactly what we’re trying to do. Predict who pitches the best.
    As a guy who accepts sabermetric thought, I’m sure Travis knows that FIP is a better “predictor” than ERA. Liriano has a road FIP of 3.27, a full run lower than his ERA.
    Furthermore, Liriano was hung out to dry by his manager in two road starts in which he gave up 10 and 7 runs a piece. Obviously it wasn’t his managers fault that he pitched poorly, but those two outings heavily skew his overall ERA in such a small sample size.
    Liriano for six innings, Cole for three.

  5. Pitts Burgher says:

    Liriano has bounced back from every poor start, including good performances on the road @ Cincinnati (June 6.2 IP/2 runs), Washington (July 7.2/0), St. Louis (Aug. 9/1) and Texas (Sept. 6/1). He should start the wild card game wherever it is played.

    Also the idea that Hurdle won’t go outside his comfort zone is not accurate. Look at how he has embraced the shifts. Starting Wilson and Watson when you have Liriano is more than just “outside the box.”

    While Hurdle has given veteran pitchers (and some others) every opportunity to get out of difficult innings in the regular season, do not necessarily expect the same in the playoffs. No way Liriano would have been around to give up that home run yesterday if it had been a 1-game playoff.

    Liriano starts, but the rope is short.

  6. leefoo says:

    My debate is that these 3 games are fairly meaningless. Set up your rotation to send out the guy YOU think has the best chance at GABP. THAT guy will win whether there or PNC.


  7. Mike says:

    Liriano starts, Watson warms at the first sniff of ANY kind of trouble.

  8. Joe says:

    I’m okay with whoever starts, just as long as he is pulled at the first sign of a problem. Start Francisco, if he doesn’t have his stuff, get him out of there.

  9. leefoo says:

    Joe…and when will that be?
    Liriano pitched out of jams throughout on Wed. He’s a vet. If the Reds get two on in the first, are we pulling our starter?

  10. leefoo says:

    who is to say that the reliever wouldn’t have given up a big hit?
    The more relievers you bring in, the more likely it is that they won’t have their stuff.
    And, when do you pull your relievers.
    it becomes a slippery slope. Hindsight is always the best sight.

  11. Jim S. says:

    Frankie has to start, but the leash would be shorter than yesterday. I’d be leery of burning my two best lefty relievers for 2 innings each, as that could seriously dent their abilities for the potential next series if they have high pitch counts. But, I’d plan on an inning from each of them, and you could have an inning where the Reds’ big lefty hitters do not bat. So, slide a RHP in there. Watson, Wilson, Melancon would be my 3 main pre-9th inning relievers for that game. Cole might very well be my 9th inning + extra innings guy.

    Of course, you may not have the luxury of setting up your relievers after games 1 & 2.

  12. Jim S. says:

    Oops! Meant “after games 1-3″ in last line.

  13. Jim S. says:

    Agreed, Pitts. But, I have to wonder why Liriano was around for that 6th inning yesterday. 4 stressful innings to start the game. 90+ pitches. Feels like everyone knew he should be yanked but him and CH.

  14. Jim S. says:

    No, but the warning signs were there to yank him after 5. Some of us did say that at time. No hindsight here.

  15. Pitts Burgher says:

    There are times when it is not hard to pull a pitcher. On Wednesday, Liriano gave up the HR, after a walk and single with no outs in the 6th in a 1-1 game on his 104th pitch to a right-handed batter, who had already crushed two pitches from Liriano for doubles.

    I’m not saying that Hurdle should not have let Liriano work out of trouble before that or that it was wrong to try to let him go six innings in a regular season game, but I think Hurdle would have pulled Liriano if it had been the wild card game. Sure another pitcher might have given up a hit. It has happened on Monday when he pulled Morton after 89 pitches. But why push Liriano, when there is no tomorrow if the Bucs lose? The calculus changes in the playoffs.

  16. Liriano threw only 9 pitches in a 1-2-3 5th inning!

    And he certainly wiggled out of jams in the first four innings.

    8 strikeouts, 0 walks, and 1 run allowed going to 6th. That’s the guy you are angry at Hurdle for not pulling after 5?!?

  17. I hate to disagree with my esteemed friend, National Mart of Records, but Liriano for 6 and Cole for 3 would be foolish!
    Cole hasn’t pitched in relief all year, and Watson, Wilson, Melancon, and Grilli have been a team strength.
    Let the relievers pitch in relief.
    I agree strongly with his 1st 3 paragraphs though.

  18. Not “meaningless” but less important than Tuesday.
    Why reinvent the wheel? Leave the rotation As Is: Burnett, Morton, Cole (if the game means anything), and Liriano on Tuesday.

  19. Jim S. says:

    I thought he struggled most innings, Groat. Yes, he had a quick 5th – after 4 stressful innings that I think took a toll. Plus, after he let the first 2 guys on in the 6th, he left him in to pitch against a guy that had hit 2 doubles off him. I think Clint has had the Midas Touch with when to go to relievers this year. I just thought Liriano should have been taken out before the inning. If not then, certainly after the first 2 guys got on. By that time, he had thrown 105 pitches, and many of them had come in bunches early on, which takes a bigger toll.

  20. NMR says:

    I certainly don’t have a problem going the conventional route you two describe, given the number of quality relievers the team has to work with.
    I just have a hard time leaving, what I feel, is the team’s best arm out of such a pivotal game.
    I feel this situation sets itself up perfectly for a “piggyback” start. Let Liriano go twice through the order(I suppose that would be 5 innings or so), then bring in Cole for 2 or 3 and finish it out with your best BP arm .

  21. NMR says:

    The only thing I’ll object to is the notion that just because a starter HASN’T relieved, he CAN’T relieve.
    In a game of this magnitude, would you really rather have Jeanmar Gomez pitching long relief than Gerrit Cole?

  22. NMR says:

    Groat, I kind’ve think that is Jim’s point. He did wiggle out of jams in the first four innings. Meaning he was walking a fine line all game.
    When you have the luxury of a strong and deep bullpen, why push your luck seeing if the starting pitcher can get out of another one?

  23. Chuck H says:

    The big question is which Pirate lineup is going to show up in Cincy? The good hitting
    lineup or the pitiful one which shows up without notice far too often. For instance-in
    Sunday’s game, if the hitless/runless bunch had scored as many runs as they should have,
    then the homerun that Liriano gave up would not have mattered. They were very bad
    hitting with RISP, whereas the Cubbies were not. So, whichever pitcher is going in this
    weekend series is going to need some hitting and run scoring support. That is my stand
    on the situation and I’m sticking to it. GO, BUCS!!!

  24. Chuck H says:

    Also, Hurdle should recognize when a pitcher has run out of gas, and needs to come out of the game. In a tight situation, use a lefty pitcher against a lefty batter and vice-versa.

  25. Sweet Jimmy and National Mart of Records,

    When I look at McDonald coming up with 2 previous doubles, I think: “There is NO WAY this guy gets another hit off Liriano. Liriano is too good a pitcher. And McDonald is not that good a hitter!”

    Liriano is such a good ground ball pitcher, and he has already 8 strikeouts. I totally expected a doubleplay ball or a strikeout.

    I also remember Liriano’s last “bad” outing, when he was pulled after allowing 2 runs, but left with 3 guys on base and the bullpen scored them all.

    I was perfectly fine with Hurdle allowing Liriano to go for the K or the DP. Liriano’s 8 K’s and previous inning showed he still had “it.”

  26. That’s a very interesting question, National Mart of Records.
    Cole just, just turned 23. He has NO experience coming into the middle of a game. His 1st inning in every outing is his biggest “struggle” inning, until he gets his feet on the ground.
    Yet certainly he has twice the arm and ‘stuff’ a Gomez or a Mazarro has.
    Experience? Stuff? Been there before? Never been there before?
    We saw Cole allow his emotions get the better of him mid-season. Could that happen in a game with bunting hanging all through the stands?
    Interesting dilemma!

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