With just three games left in the Buccos’ regular season campaign, it is becoming ever-more clear that the St. Louis Cardinals will win the division. It is possible that the Cubs sweep the Cardinals and the Pirates sweep the Reds, but it is not likely. With this assumption in mind, who starts the do-or-die wild card game against the Reds? Let’s breakdown the available pitchers:
A.J. clearly has the most playoff and high-pressure atmosphere experience on the pitching staff. Unfortunately he also has struggled in these situations. His career postseason ERA is 5.08. Take this with a grain of salt; the A.J. Burnett Pirates fans have come to know and trust is a different pitcher than the A.J. Burnett who got booed off the mound by Yankees fans on multiple occasions. A.J. is the face of the pitching staff. He has the fire, intensity, and motivation to win. I’m not sure there is a guy anywhere in baseball that hates losing as much as A.J. does. If there is only one guy that you can count on to go out there and leave it all on the mound, it’s A.J. His 4.53 ERA on the road this season is a troubling statistic. Fortunately, his one start at Great American this season was solid; he went 5.2 IP with a 3.13 ERA. He did give up five runs in that game, but only two were earned on 10 hits. Still, there is no guarantee that the A.J. of old won’t show up and get rocked for 5+ runs in one of those terrible innings he tends to have. If the game is on the road, he might not be the right choice. Don’t forget this season is likely A.J.’s swan song as a major league pitcher, which could be a good enough reason to start him regardless.
Liriano has 7.2 IP in the playoffs in his seven year career, good enough for second most in said category on the Pirates pitching staff. He has made only one start, going 5.2 innings and giving up 4 ER. That was in 2010 when the Twins played the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS. Just like Burnett, Liriano has struggled in the postseason throughout his career. Also like Burnett, he looks like a totally different pitcher as a Pirate than he did previously. In a pitching staff full of guys who have exceeded expectations, Liriano is the biggest surprise. His meager $1 million contract may be the best free agent signing in all of baseball this year, and he certainly has been the “stopper” of the staff. Like Burnett, he has been stellar at home. He has struggled on the road and been horrid in Cincinnati this season, posting a 6.10 ERA in Great American. If the game is at PNC, he gets the start. If it isn’t, Hurdle has a decision to make.
Since Morton’s return from injury, he has been one of the most underrated performers on the Pirates. He’s been great at home and solid on the road (except for Busch), and his affinity for forcing the opposition into ground balls limits big innings. There’s not much of a chance, if any, that Morton starts the wild card game but he certainly can give the Pirates a few solid starts in October provided they make it past the Reds.
Gerrit Cole is the most important member of the Pirates’ pitching staff. His emergence as a consistent and confident starter has solidified the
rotation and made Clint Hurdle’s job a lot easier. Gerrit is yet to face the Reds once this season, which could be a blessing in disguise. There
isn’t a lot of tape on Cole at the moment and the Reds lineup doesn’t have the benefit of facing Cole previously. It’s a talented and potent offense, but throwing a pitcher who they haven’t seen before could be a good way to subdue them. Furthermore, Cole’s stellar 2.38 ERA on the road is the best on the staff by far. He’s also been serviceable at home, posting a 3.75 ERA. Don’t forget that Cole is also red-hot right now. He has been nearly unhittable in September. If the game is on the road, Cole needs to start. He is too young to know what this means to Pittsburgh, but that may be a good thing. All he has to do is go out there and pitch. Don’t forget he has been surprisingly effective with the bat as well. It’s a one game playoff. The normal rules of baseball don’t matter. Anything can and will happen out there. Cole finally has his strikeout pitch working and looks like he will only continue to improve.
Cole probably won’t get the start. There’s a good chance Liriano (who is currently in-line for the start) provides the Pirates with a solid start. This team has never been here before though. This is uncharted territory. So why not risk it and go with Cole? The guy can do no wrong right now. The fact that we can have the conversation of picking the best pitcher for this situation from a group of four well qualified starters still seems surreal. Regardless of who starts, they’ll need run support and solid defense. Let’s go Bucs!