Make way for the new 'ace'

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Over the first two months of the season, it would have been hard to find a follower of the Pirates who would not have named A.J. Burnett as the pitcher he or she most wanted to see on the mound in a meaningful game.

But when Burnett went on the disabled list June 13, Francisco Liriano began to emerge as the Pirates' best pitcher and in time, based on performance, became the 'ace.' Burnett was relegated to No. 2. Liriano was the man everyone wanted on the mound in that first playoff game.

But as August rolls into September, a third pitcher, the unlikeliest of candidates, is emerging as the team's new 'go-to' guy. After another strong performance last night -- 6 2/3 innings, five hits, no earned runs -- in the Pirates 7-1 win over Milwaukee, Charlie Morton reaffirmed the notion that he has been the team's most consistent and possibly best pitcher this month.

You can't argue with the facts.

• Morton has pitched 40 1/3 innings and allowed 41 hits and has a 2.67 ERA in six starts.

• Burnett has pitched 33 1/3 innings and allowed 36 hits and has a 4.32 ERA in five starts.

• Liriano has pitched 29 1/3 innings and allowed 31 hits and had a 4.60 ERA in five starts.

But, of course, you can argue with statistics. Liriano's numbers are badly skewed by a horrendous 2 1/3 inning, 10-run performance. Take that away and his ERA for August is 1.67. But if you remove Morton's worst start, only fair, his August ERA is 1.83.

The point of all this: It's way too early to be naming the Pirates pitcher for the first game of the playoffs, be it a wild-card game or a the opener of a division playoff series.

Much can change between now and the end of September. It's not like Liriano has been some sort of long-term ace. In fact, in 2011-12 he had just about the worst ERA of any pitcher in MLB. This isn't to suggest he'll revert to that form. It is to suggest, he could start pitching with not quite the same level of dominance he's mostly displayed since he came off the DL and opened his season in May.

Liriano is the clear favorite to pitch the first Pirates postseason game since 1992. But he's not a lock.




On that same subject, let's play your favorite game: You Be The Manager:

Suppose the Pirates and Reds, set to play on the final day of the season in Cincinnati, are tied for second place with no chance to catch first-place St. Louis. Burnett and Morton are not rested. Liriano is.

Do you pitch Liriano in the final game in the hopes of getting home field? Or do you start, say, Gerrit Cole and rest Liriano for the wild-card game?




Good outside-the-box thinking by the Pirates in making their roster moves yesterday. While most were speculating Tony Sanchez and Felix Pie would be cut to make room for Marlon Byrd and John Buck, the Pirates moved in a different and smarter direction.

As expected, they sent Sanchez to the minors, but not Pie. Instead, it was Jeff Locke who also was sent to Altoona. Makes perfect sense. Locke has been so bad there's no way the Pirates could pitch him in his regular turn against St. Louis Sunday. By sending him out instead of Pie, Locke won't be eligible for the postseason, unless there's an injury, which is no big deal. He does not figure in the team's postseason plans.

Most importantly, unless something changes, the Pirates will be set to go with a playoff roster of 14 position players and 11 pitchers, a better configuration for a short series than the 13-12 ratio used for the long haul of the regular season.

Some will suggest the Pirates messed with clubhouse chemistry in dispatching Locke, who was integral to the team's first-half success. Nonsense! The players want the best team, not the best teammates. This new roster gives them the best chance to win. No one will be unhappy. Unless they start to lose and no one is ever very happy with that.




Marlon Byrd makes a fine debut last night. He only had one hit in four at bats, but it was a three-run homer. He also crushed a ball in the first inning with the bases loaded that pitcher Tom Gorzelanny somehow caught to turn a double. In the fourth inning, he had a 14-pitch at bat against Gorzelanny before striking out.

The Pirates lineup looks a lot better with Byrd batting fourth or fifth than Russell Martin, who was misplaced hitting in the middle of the lineup.

bobsmiziksports


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