SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Buckle up Pittsburgh. Since pitchers and catchers reported to spring training some 230 days have elapsed in the Pirates’ best year since 1992. And now the life and death of that season comes down to one game.
I get why Major League Baseball opted for the second wild card: it makes the division races more meaningful, it keeps more teams in the races, thereby keeping more fans interested in buying tickets and $8 beer, and it’s also created two great made-for-TV events. I actually like it as a fan of the game. There’s nothing like elimination-game baseball. But I understand why the No. 4 seed does not and likely never will.
The 2013 NL No. 4 seed, the Pirates, finished the season four games better than the Reds but now must win a fourth straight game against Reds on Tuesday to advance to the NLDS. Fairness is not part of the second wild card equation.
The Pirates I spoke with in Cincy were not big on the relatively new playoff format, and no No. 4 seed will likely ever be.
“It’s crazy because we play so many games,” first baseman Justin Morneau said. “There’s not any point during the year where we play a one-game series against anybody. Anybody can beat anybody in one game. It doesn’t ensure the best team advances.”
Baseball is a process sport. It’s played over a marathon of a season when small-sample flukes tend to evaporate, when bad calls tend to even out, when the best teams typically rise to the top. But anything can happen in one game. Even the 1927 Yankees could lose in a one-game playoff. On Tuesday a process sport becomes solely dependent on one outcome which is alien to the nature of the game.
It’s great television. It’s great theater. But it’s also completely arbitrary.
So brace yourself Pittsburgh, this fun ride could come to an abrupt, cold ending Tuesday. I think that’s why context is important. Regardless of what happens, 94 wins is a monumental achievement for this franchise and should not be forgotten or dismissed regardless of what happens in a one-game play-in. 2013 could end in heartbreaking fashion but it cannot be defined in any term other than success.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates align their postseason roster. It does not have to be released until Tuesday.
My lineup expectation vs. Reds RHP Johnny Cueto:
LF Starling Marte: A healthy Marte brings much needed speed to the lineup. He stole three bases Wednesday in Chicago after Pirates entered with four steals in Sept.
2B Neil Walker (S): Walker has been much better against RHP, with all 16 of his home runs coming vs. RHP
CF Andrew McCutchen: The NL MVP favorite has three home runs in 39 career at bats vs. Cueto.
1B Justin Morneau (L): Morneau’s bat has cooled since joining the Pirates but he’s batting .282 with 15 HRs against RHP
RF Marlon Byrd: While Byrd hits for a higher average vs. lefties, he’s hit 16 of his 24 homers vs. RHP
3B Pedro Alvarez (L): Of Alvarez’s 36 home runs, 33 are vs. RHP
C Russell Martin: Martin’s bat has cooled in the second half but he remains a well-above average defensive catcher
SS Clint Barmes: The team’s best defensive shortstop.
LHP Francisco Liriano
Bench: Josh Harrison, Garrett Jones (L), Jordy Mercer, John Buck, Tony Sanchez, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider (L)
Bullpen: Justin Wilson (L), Tony Watson (L), Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Vin Mazarro, Gerrit Cole, Kyle Farnsworth, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez
That’s mine show me yours.
8. You might loathe the wild card playoff game this year beacuse the Pirates are the No. 4 seed but you couldn’t ask for a better matchup: Liriano’s line in two home games vs. Reds this season: 14Ip, 7H, 3R, 4BB, 18K
Liriano has posted a single-season, all-time best opponent OPS against LHH (.321). That’s right, best in major league history for a pitcher. The Reds’ three best bats – Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce – are all left-handed and are each significantly worse against left-handed pitching.
One other key: Liriano has a 1.47 home ERA vs. a 4.32 road ERA this season
Moreover, the Pirates also have two of the games best lefty specialists in Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, and Mark Melancon has actually been better against left-handed pitching. The Reds’ lefty-heavy lineup should be severely handicapped.
I think it’s also a big deal that Gerrit Cole didn’t have to pitch Sunday. That means the Pirates can have a 100-mph throwing right-handed pitcher to match up with Tuesday. The bullpen was a key strength in the first half of the season and it should be again Tuesday.
7. Oh, and the Pirates are also on their home-field, which is significant if you read my piece on home-field advantage from Friday
6. Don’t sleep on Johnny Cueto. His stuff has looked very good in his two starts in returning from injury. He’s touched 95 mph with his fastball and has had plenty of success against the Pirates in the past, holding current Pirates to a collective .209 batting average.
Scout following Reds:"Don't underestimate Cueto on Tuesday. His fastball, change very close to normal his last start"
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) September 29, 2013
5. A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton will not be on the wild cards game roster, but they could be the first two starters in the NLDS should the Pirates advance. Burnett would start Game 1 of the NLDS.
One player you won’t see in the postseason is Jeff Locke. GM Neal Huntington announced Sunday Locke is shut down for the rest of the season. What a fall: from first-half All-Star to Double-A demotion in August and left off the postseason roster.
4. I like Travis Snider and Garrett Jones as bench options Tuesday. Snider has three pinch-hit homers this season. Jones homered Sunday.
3. I thought Hurdle was wise to field a lineup that looked like something of a split-squad spring training game Sunday. The Pirates and Reds had entered with a MLB series high 27 hit batters and no sense in risking injury.
2. Can Pedro Alvarez become the next Chris Davis? Davis was an all-or-nothing slugger in 2012 and made the leap to MVP candidate in 2013. He did it by cutting Ks and increasing BB rate while keeping his HR/FB rate elite. Alvarez has a similar HR/FB rate but he must cut down on his number of empty at bats. He’s yet to prove he can … but Davis is evidence of a player who did make unexpected improvement.
1 . Looking ahead to the offseason, the Pirates will be in need of a first baseman and Baseball America’s excellent prospect writer Ben Badler believes the Pirates will be one of five contenders for Cuba’s Jose Abrue, a mighty slugger with hole in his swing.
Typically the Pirates aren’t a team that springs for big-name free agents, but that might make Abreu an even more appealing option since clubs view Abreu as a riskier bet compared to a player with major league experience. With a potential bump in revenue coming from a postseason berth and their first winning season in 20 years, the Pirates could have more financial flexibility to pursue free agents in the offseason.
The increased risk around Abrue, gives the Pirates a chance in the bidding as Badler notes. As the Oakland A’s proved, the international market can be a market inefficiency to be taken advantage of if you have the scouting right.
HE SAID IT
“When people ask me a number, 95 is the number I throw out there, and people go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of-’ and I go, ‘Yeah, you’re right it’s a lot of games!’ I get it, but you know what? If we win 95, we’re going to be in a good place. So how do you win 95? Where do you go recreate 16 games? That’s kind of the mentality we’ve used.”
– Clint Hurdle on Feb. 28
HE SAID IT II
Andrew McCuthcen’s final triple slash line .317/.404/.508 and NL-best WAR (8.1) is MVP worthy.
Said teammate Neil Walker:
“He’s among what I like to call the ‘One Percenters’ in Major League Baseball. And I have a front-row seat.”
HE TWEETED IT
— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) September 29, 2013
STAT OF THE WEEK
From David Golebiewski ….
Gerrit Cole ranks among top rookie September K artists (min. 30 IP)
Pitcher Year K/9
Dwight Gooden 1984 13.3
Bob Feller 1936 11.3
Gerrit Cole 2013 11.0
Cole Hamels 2005 10.9
Bobby Witt 1986 10.9
…. Pretty darn impressive
NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
Breaking Bad. Wow. If you haven’t watched this series start from the beginning via DVD and thank me later.