Attempting to pick the outcome of one baseball game is sheer folly. The unpredictability of it is one of the reasons so many fans are unhappy with the best-of-one format in the wild-card game. As most know and understand, on any given day, for example, the lowly Chicago Cubs (66-96) can beat the top-seeded St. Louis Cardinals (97-65). In fact, it happened on nine given days during the 2013 season.
That said, let's have a go at the biggest baseball game in Pittsburgh since 1992 as the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds play at PNC Park to determine -- in one game -- which team advances to the next round to face the Cardinals.
Why the Pirates can win: So much of the unpredictability of a baseball is tied to the importance of the starting pitcher. No player in team sports can influence a game as much as a starter. In this particular game, that is the Pirates largest advantage. But it comes with the caveat that Francisco Liriano must be on his game tonight. Too many times in the second half of the season. Liriano has had not just a bad outing but a terrible one. It must be noted, though, that none of those games occurred at PNC Park, where he has been sensational. And that's why it was so important for the Pirates to get home field. At PNC Park, Liriano can be a difference-maker.
His home record is 8-1, his home ERA is 1.47. But what's truly amazing about Liriano at PNC Park is opponents are batting .174 against him. That's 77 points below the NL average.
Another edge, and a significant one, is Liriano's ability to handle left-handed hitters. He has the best OPS-against in MLB at .321. No one else, not even relief a specialist, is close. That's important because three of the Reds best hitters, Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, are left-handers. Combined they are 8-for-52 (.154) against Liriano.
Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto is tough against the Pirates. But he doesn't have the dominance that Liriano has at home or Liriano's ability to control the opposition's best hitters.
Why the Pirates can lose: As anyone who has followed the team's recent play knows, the back end of the bullpen -- once virtually unbeatable, if not unhittable -- is in a bit of turmoil. Even when Liriano is at the top of his game, he rarely goes nine innings, which means the back end figures to be in play.
Mark Melancon was arguably the most effective reliever in MLB for the first four months of the season. His ERA for that span, where he mostly pitched the eighth inning, was 0.87 and his BAA was under .200. He continued to be as effective when he took over the closer's role when Jason Grilli was injured in July. But he ran into a bad stretch in September. Over eight games, 7 2/3 innings, he allowed five runs. In another game during that stretch, he gave up three unearned runs and three hits in 2/3 of an inning.
His stuff still looked good, still looked, in fact, dominating. His September K/9 rate was 10.97. For the first five months it was 8.50. His walk rate in September was down from the first five months. But he wasn't getting the desired results and manager Clint Hurdle removed him from the closer's role and gave the job back to Grilli.
That was surprising, to say the least, since Grilli had not pitched well upon his return from the DL, and his velocity was down. His pre-injury K/9 was 14.04; post-injury it is 9.41. His diminished velocity also is evident in his batting-average against, which is a whopping .355 in September.
My admiration for Grilli's fortitude and heart is immense. But I'm not sure this is the guy I want pitching the ninth inning in the postseason.
Conclusion: Liriano's home-field edge and his ability to dominate left-handed hitters is too great an advantage for the Reds to overcome. The Pirates are off to St. Louis.
First Published October 1, 2013 2:45 PM