Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Playoffs in Pittsburgh

The final week of the 2013 MLB regular season produced plenty of drama from storylines of retiring Yankees to a gripping Wild Card race in the American League and an incredible no-hitter by the Miami Marlins’ Henderson Alvarez ended on a walk-off wild pitch.

And just as we all hoped, we look set to have an enthralling October of playoff baseball.

Nowhere will that be more welcome than in Pittsburgh, for far to long a city that has been starved of all the thrills and spills that the postseason brings.

Their series win over the Cincinnati Reds to end the regular season meant that PNC Park will be the venue for their final battle of 2013 with that same team.

The Pirates were on their way to breaking their losing-season hoodoo last year when they collapsed down the stretch. This time, they’ve been able to hold steady over the final two months and now homegrown talents such as the outstanding Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole will get the chance to play on the biggest stage.

There will be plenty of pressure on the team come Tuesday night (the early hours of Wednesday for us in the U.K.). Getting this far is a great achievement for the Buccos but as the first pitch nears a nagging thought will linger at the back of the mind: after waiting so long for this moment to come, it will be an enormous let down to have it all end after just one game. Losing a Division Series is tough enough, falling short in the Wild Card game will be ten times worse.

That nervousness is something the Reds need to take advantage of. They have their own pressures to deal with after letting a 2-0 NLDS lead slip against the San Francisco Giants last year. Their scheduled starting pitcher for the Wild Card game will certainly have that on his mind.

Johnny Cueto lasted just one batter in Game One of that series before suffering an injury that ruled him out for the rest of campaign. Mat Latos stepped into the breach by pitching four relief innings as the Reds went on to win 5-2. In one of those curious coincidences that sport can produce, Latos’s own injury issues have ruled him out of the game against Pittsburgh and this time roles will reverse with Cueto trying to save the day.

Whilst the Reds are publicly stating their confidence in Cueto, quietly there has to be some doubt as to which version will show up. The pitcher has been on the Disabled List three times this season and has only recently returned to action with two decent outings against the Houston Astros and New York Mets. Neither of those opponents has exactly dazzled this season on offence so Pittsburgh have to fancy their chances of jumping on him early and getting the home crowd going even more.

As for the Pirates, they will counter Cueto with an off-season addition that has turned out much better than anyone could have predicted. The news that Pittsburgh had come to an agreement with Francisco Lirano didn’t seem all that inspiring, as I wrote just before Christmas last year:

“Liriano has put up a 5.23 ERA over 60 appearances (52 starts) for the Twins and White Sox during the past two seasons and whilst he has been close to striking out a batter per inning over that span (279 K’s in 291 innings pitched), he has dished out free passes at a rate (5 per nine innings) that makes it hard to be successful.

Mired in the longest-ever sequence of consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates would have to pay top dollar to beat other teams to sign a leading free agent and they cannot afford to do so (nor even come close, one suspects). That leaves them giving money to players that might not help them all that much.  Moving to the non-DH league may be a slight positive for Liriano’s performances; however a two-year, $12.75m investment in him doesn’t seem likely to bring the Pirates a fortune-changing return.”

Liriano suffered an injury to his non-throwing arm not long after the deal had been agreed and the two sides came to a revised arrangement, only guaranteeing the pitcher $1m in 2013 (with another $3.75m dependent on staying healthy) and a club option of $8m for 2014. The Pirates couldn’t call on Liriano until 11 May as he recovered but he was more than worth the wait.

The left-hander has gone 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA over 26 starts and his peripheral stats show this has not been a fluke. He’s continued his recent trend of striking out a batter every inning (163K’s in 161 innings pitched) whilst cutting down on the free passes to 3.5 per inning. His five starts in September have yielded a less-impressive 5.14 ERA which might suggest he’s running out of steam, but his strikeouts and walks have remained on course (28 IP, 28K, 12BB) and within those five games was a strong eight-inning effort against the Reds.

It should be an intriguing match-up and PNC Park will be a wonderful host venue. It’s one of the most picturesque ballparks in the Majors and it will be crammed full with Pirates fans, quite a few of whom will be watching their team playing postseason baseball for the first time.

Put it alongside the American League Wild Card shuffle and we’re sure to have an exciting start to October.

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