Pirates' Hurdle will dance with the ones who brought him
October 9, 2013 4:00 AM
The removal of Starling Marte, pictured here, for Jose Tabata is unlikely; the removal of Walker for Jordy Mercer highly unlikely.
By Bob Smizik Special to the Post-Gazette
How many times have we heard this in the past month: 'This is the Pirates' biggest game since ... '
Tonight at Busch Stadium, the Pirates play what is unequivocally their biggest game since Oct. 14, 1992, when Doug Drabek and John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves engaged in one of those epic postseason pitching duels that ended in jubilation for the Braves and immediate heartbreak and then 20 seasons of heartache for the Pirates organization and its fans.
This game is not on quite as large a stage at the 3-2 loss to the Braves, as Sid Bream slid home -- barely -- with the game-winning run in the last of the ninth. The winner of that game went to the World Series. The winner of this game only advances for the right to play for the World Series.
But in the grand scheme of things, this game carries oh, so much more for Pittsburgh and the Pirates. In 1992, the Pirates were playing in their third straight NLCS and they were only 13 years removed from a World Series championship. In 2013, the Pirates are playing in their first postseason in 21 years and have not been in a World Series in 34 years -- which, by the way, is the longest drought in franchise history, eclipsing the 33 years between 1927 and 1960.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of this game, join me in officially debunking the outrageous but widely promoted notion during the latter stages of the 20 consecutive losing seasons, which stated that because of ineptitude by Pirates players and Pirates management the franchise had "lost a generation of fans."
Amid the outpouring of genuine support from the region in terms of attendance, television viewership, merchandise sales and incredible passion that fable seems pretty ridiculous. And, of course, it was.
On to the game:
In my weekly appearance on the David Todd Show on 970 ESPN yesterday, under questioning about my multiple commentaries suggesting the removal of Justin Morneau from the No. 4 slot in the batting order, I presented this lineup: Marte, Walker, McCutchen, Byrd, Alvarez, Martin, Morneau, Barmes, Cole. And added, "If you want, switch Walker and Morneau."
And there you have it: The near-perfect lineup for this team: Justin Morneau is removed from the middle of it, where his lack of power is highly counterproductive, and put closer to the top, where his plate discipline can be better utilized. Walker is a better fit toward the end where his power, now, temporarily, dormant, would be of more use. The middle of it -- Andrew McCutchen, Marlon Byrd, Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin -- places the players hitting the most and for the most power in consecutive order.
Of course, it's not going to happen. Clint Hurdle is going to adhere to the philosophy he has embraced since the postseason began: Dance with the one who brought you. The removal of Starling Marte for Jose Tabata is unlikely; the removal of Walker for Jordy Mercer highly unlikely. If there is to be a change, the most likely one will be Mercer at shortstop for Clint Barmes.
With one game remaining in this series, it's hard to quibble with that thinking. Anything can happen in one game. Marte and Walker, duds at the top of the lineup, could produce a flurry of hits and runs. Byrd, Alvarez and Martin, the team's most productive postseason hitters, could post a string of zeroes.
As can be seen here, the Pirates as a team have very good numbers against St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright. The 14 active position players have a combined batting average of .301 against Wainwright. The OPS of that group against Wainwright is about .840. The National League average in those categories are .251 and .703 (including pitchers).
These numbers suggest the notion that Wainwright 'owns' the Pirates is pure fiction.
He is an excellent pitcher, one of the best. He's had success against the Pirates, as a 9-4 record indicates. But his lifetime ERA against them of 4.81 would indicate that he has not been dominant. Wainwright is 1-0 in three starts against the Pirates this season with a 3.00 ERA.
Which makes his dominance pale compared to how Gerrit Cole has handled St. Louis, albeit in one game. In Game 2 of this series, Cole made his only career appearance against the Cardinals and held them to one run, two hits and one walk in six innings.
It's baseball and in one game any one team is capable of beating another.
Set yourself for a night that could well be packed with so much tension it will be uncomfortable at times. A win will make it all worthwhile. A loss will end a season to remember, a season the promises to replicate itself in the near-future.