As much as we’d like to think otherwise, there is a better-than-average chance the Pittsburgh Pirates will play in the National League wild-card game, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1.
Yes, the St. Louis Cardinals have just a one-game lead on the Bucs for the NL Central’s top spot with 11 contests still to play, but unless the Bucs can put together a long winning streak on command, they will have to prepare for the possibility of an instant winner-take-all scenario.
An interesting thing about the wild-card game is that it’s considered a separate series by MLB, meaning that teams can tailor their game-day roster to that game knowing they will be able to reset if they win. For practical purposes, that means the Pirates will have a full position-player bench to work with, because why carry someone like Jeff Locke when you’re not going to need him for the game?
Knowing this, it’s clear the only decision for the play-in game that needs real consideration is which pitcher gets the start. At one point this season I would’ve argued relentlessly for Francisco Liriano, he of the rotation-best 2.92 ERA and the sterling 9.0 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate. Beyond the numbers, the 29-year-old has also delivered some absolutely brilliant starts in important situations.
I also acknowledge the argument that A.J. Burnett should get the call. Sure, his ERA is about a half-run higher than Liriano’s and he’s given up more hits per nine innings, but his strikeout rate is slightly higher and he has previous playoff experience. Ultimately I’d shy away from the 36-year-old Burnett given his propensity to run out of steam in the middle innings lately, but he’s a valid choice.
But there’s a third option: Gerrit Cole. The rookie righthander, who just turned 23, has made all of 17 major-league starts, but he appears to be getting his feet under him at this level. Cole’s last three appearances have been quite good, as he’s allowed just three runs on 13 hits over 20 innings of work.
Narrowing the sample further, Cole’s strikeout rate has spiked in his last two starts. He fanned nine Rangers while outdueling Yu Darvish on Sept. 9, then collected seven whiffs in stifling the Cubs on Saturday. Despite already surpassing his lifetime high for innings pitched in a season, Cole looks to be peaking. His slider and two-seam fastball have been more consistent, which has made his high-90s four-seamer play better, thus resulting in more swings and misses overall.
Don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the opposition generate as few balls in play as possible, especially in a must-win situation. As it turns out, Liriano, Burnett and Cole will all be available to start the wild-card game on normal rest – as long as the Pirates don’t have to play Game 163 the day before.
If Cole continues to trend upward in his final two appearances of the regular season, he will force the Pirates to seriously consider him for the franchise’s biggest game in 20 years. I’d still bet on Liriano, but there is much left to be determined in the next two weeks.