PNC PARK – When I walked into the visitor’s clubhouse in Cincinnati following the Pirates’ six home run outburst Saturday that clinched home field in tonight’s wild card game, Stone Temple Pilot’s “Dead and Bloated” was blaring through the clubhouse stereo system. I smiled at the irony.
The track was from STP’s album “Core” which was released in 1992. The last time the Pirates hosted a playoff game was Oct. 11, 1992. The Pirates host the first playoff game in the history of PNC Park tonight.
STP has endured – they’re still playing concerts – and so to has the Pirates’ fan base which produced a PNC Park record 21 sellouts this season and will produce another for tonight’s game, a crowd that will be energized and should provide a significant home-field advantage. Will this be the last home playoff game of 2013? The following are three keys that might determine whether the Pirates advance to the NLDS:
This band is still together, kind of, and Pirates postseason baseball is again a real thing. Will it continue this week?
CAN LIRIANO COMMAND HIS FASTBALL?
Francisco Liriano has always had a swing-and-miss slider and changeup. He’s swinging strike rate is 13.2 percent, an elite rate, and the same as last season. But the reason Liriano was picked out of the free agent bargain bin this offseason was because he couldn’t command his fastball. He walked too many batters. He fell behind too many batters, allowing them to lay off his off-speed stuff.
The transformation Liriano made as a Pirate is pretty simple: he more often threw his fastball for strike one. He made a slight mechanical tweak in the offseason and he is throwing a career-high percentage of two-seam fastballs. The result? The second highest strike one percentage of his career and a bounce-back Cy Young caliber season.
Liriano has been mostly great this season. But his meltdown outings have been because of faulty command. When runners get on base, Lirian0′s mechanics can fall apart leading to an avalanche effect. But if he’s on the Pirates should be in great shape. Again, Liriano has an all-time, MLB single-season best .321 opponent OPS against LHH and the Reds are loaded with talented LHH.
(If Liriano struggles, Hurdle said the plan is for Gerrit Cole to be the first in the game. If he’s not needed through the early innings he’ll be saved for a potentially extended outing in outing extra innings)
CAN THE PIRATES’ LEFTIES HIT CUETO?
You’d really like the Pirates chances tonight until you look at their combined career batting average of .209 against Johnny Cueto, one of the best starters in the NL and a RHP who has looked good since returning from the DL.
All 16 of Neil Walker‘s home runs have come against right-handed pitching, 33 of Pedro Alvarez‘s 36 homers have come against right-handed pitching, the Pirates have been waiting for lefty cleanup hitter Justin Morneau to provide an impact against right-handed pitching. The Pirates need their lefty bats to have a big night vs. Cueto.
WHICH MANAGER CAN BE MORE CREATIVE AND EFFECTIVE WITH HIS 25-MAN ROSTER?
Clint Hurdle said he played two games of chess with his son, Christian, Monday night. Hurdle said he is “re-familiarizing” himself with the game and he’ll have to familiarize himself with another type of game tonight.
Because baseball allows teams to alter their postseason rosters after every round, including the wild card game, it allows teams to be creative with their roster composition. For instance, the Pirates are carrying three catchers and only two starter pitchers – Liriano and Gerrit Cole – on their roster. Managers rarely, really never, have such creative matchups available to them in the regular season or standard postseason series. So whoever – Dusty Baker or Hurdle - does a better job of matching up will give their team a decided edge tonight.