Some random, non-proofread thoughts as I hurry to churn out an article before heading to my real job, then onto a weekend without internet access during a very critical juncture in the season (opening image credit foxsports).
1. I bought my playoff tickets for Tuesday’s Wild Card game in Pittsburgh, but will I ever get to use them? The Pittsburgh Pirates have to take 2 of 3 from the Reds, which seems unlikely given the club’s inconsistent play as of late. Dropping the previous series opener to the Reds in crushing 6-5 late-innings fashion (after squandering a 5-2 lead in the 9th) really comes back into play in a big way.
2. A huge reason for trying to attain home field in the Wild Card game is the home-road splits of probable starter Francisco Liriano. The 16-game-winning lefty sports an impressive .174 BAA /.474 OPSA at PNC Park, but is much more hittable on the road, showing a line of .261 BAA / .715 OPSA.
3. I actually would’ve been fine with any of the Pirates’ 4 main rotation options to start the Wild Card game at this point.
A.J. Burnett - Postseason and World Series experience, coming off 2 strong starts, crossed the fantastic 200K plateau.
Gerrit Cole- Best pitcher in the entire National League during the month of September; in all but 1 of his starts, he’s given up 3 runs or less!
Charlie Morton- The long-shot of the 3, but even Morton has been impressively consistent over the past month, showing excellent control of his sinking arsenal.
4. So is SP Jeff Locke even going to make the postseason roster at this point? If the Pirates can win the Wild Card, they’ll obviously go with a 4-man rotation with the 2013 All-Star being the odd man out. But does manager Clint Hurdle keep Locke as a long man out of the pen? It seems unlikely, as the Pirates would be more prone to go with a reliever instead. Locke has to be one of the only All-Stars in history in danger of not making his post-season roster the same year. Really disappointing 2nd half for one of the best stories in baseball over the 1st half.
5. Personally, I would be the most comfortable seeing Gerrit Cole pitch in the Wild Card game. However, the thought of starting a rookie in such a high-stakes contest would probably make manager Hurdle’s head explode, and I’m certain the thinking is that Liriano can limit the Reds’ arsenal of lefty power bats in Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo. Still, Liriano can be very feast-or-famine: He’ll either have a dominant start where he limits the Reds to 1 run and 3-4 hits over 8 frames, or get shelled, and the Pirates’ postseason hopes could be over by the 4th inning.
6. However, my biggest worry heading into the postseason is the Pirates’ bullpen. Mark Melancon is very vulnerable any time he’s in the game now, and Jason Grilli has only just resumed the closer’s role, and may not be as dominant as he was pre-injury. As much as I give huge props to GM Neal Huntington for a great trade deadline and waiver period, I’m floored that Kyle Farnsworth (signed as a FA) was the only meaningful addition he made to the bullpen. Huntington normally LOVES the ‘pen, and the cost of marquee relievers on the market this year was very reasonable.
7. Speaking of Huntington, I loved the acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, but both have to start stepping up large. After a strong debut, Byrd is down to a .751 OPS with the Pirates, which is actually lower than Jose Tabata’s strong .766 OPS (117 OPS+). Morneau has been even more frustrating. The Pirates clearly acquired him at the right time, as the towering lefty had smacked 9 home runs in the month of August in the American League, but he has yet to hit a single one through 23 games with the Pirates, and only has a .702 OPS with them, though his .373 OBP has been strong due to his ability to draw walks.
8. Even so, I still think Morneau is the far superior option over Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez, though I don’t mind seeing Tabata rotate in with Starling Marte and Byrd at the corners. The young, enigmatic OF has definitely earned his time while filling in remarkably well for the injured Marte.
9. Speaking of Marte, his final AB to seal the series-closing loss against the Chicago Cubs was incredibly frustrating. Down 4-2 with a runner on 3rd and 2 outs, Marte- whose late-inning heroics are well-documented- looked at 3 straight strikes to end the game. The former top Pirates’ farmhand has all the physical tools in the world, but now it’s a matter of bringing up his baseball acumen to match.
10. Technically, the Pittsburgh Pirates still have a chance to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the division, but it would require a Pirates’ sweep of the Reds, and a Cubs’ sweep of the Cardinals. So most fans are already banking on a 1-game playoff with the Reds. I think within the next 5 years, the Wild Card contest will be changed to a best-of-3 series, as 1 game is hardly enough to decide a winner in a sport that has 162 games, as opposed to the NFL’s 16. But until then, it is what it is, and Pirates’ fans should probably be happy that a 2nd Wild Card makes this season finale series slightly less high stakes than if one team was making the playoffs, and the other going home. Anything can happen in 1 game, so here’s hoping the Pirates continue their miracle season.
Thanks for reading.