2015 MLB Playoffs: How far will the Pirates go?

Is Cole the key for Pirates in wild-card game?

The Baseball Tonight crew previews the National League wild-card game between the Cubs and Pirates. Jake Arrieta is scheduled to face off against Gerrit Cole on the mound.


1. They have the rotation depth to survive using ace Gerrit Cole to win the wild-card game against the Cubs.

Matchups and depth can define a team's range of possibilities in the postseason. If Cole beats Jake Arrieta -- which would be the Pirates’ ninth win in 10 career starts for Cole against the Cubs -- then Francisco Liriano is a great place to start out in the NLDS. Then Liriano would be in line to pitch Game 5, if necessary. Advance to the NLCS, and Cole and Liriano will take four of the seven turns -- add A.J. Burnett (3.18 ERA, 17 quality starts in 26 turns) and J.A. Happ, and the Bucs might have October’s best postseason rotation quartet.

2. Would you bet against anybody who has Andrew McCutchen in the middle of their lineup?

He's arguably the single best hitter in the NL postseason, and between his power, patience and plate coverage, there is nothing that the former MVP can’t do to beat a team with a bat in his hands.

3. They have a seven-man bullpen that you'll be lucky to do any damage against.

Between righties Joakim Soria, Jared Hughes, Joe Blanton and Arquimedes Caminero, lefties Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo and closer Mark Melancon, the Pirates' pen posse has combined for a 2.64 ERA and struck out 22 percent of opposing batters since the All-Star break.

4. Does anybody master details better than the Pirates?

From their demonstrated sabermetric savvy to what Ben Lindbergh noted in his piece on "managerial meddling" for Grantland, Clint Hurdle is one of the most aggressive skippers when it comes to defensive shifts, defensive substitutes and pinch-running, all aiming to accrue every little tactical advantage he can find. Smart situational management can add up to outsized value -- remember how the Giants won the World Series with the likes of Travis Ishikawa in left field just last year? Hurdle's in-game gambits helped win a pennant with the Colorado Rockies in no small part because of this kind of understanding of every advantage that every player can add.

5. They are at least the second-best team in baseball.

If the Pirates beat Arrieta in the wild-card game and then the Cardinals -- the owners of baseball's best record -- in the NLDS, they will already have jumped over two of the highest hurdles in anybody's postseason path, in this or any October. Get beyond those matchups, and they're a combined 11-1 against the Mets and Dodgers, and it isn't like anybody in the AL is the '61 Yankees. If the Pirates win now, they'll win later.


1. Well, about Jake Arrieta.

If your entire postseason future has to go through Arrieta, the way he's been pitching down the stretch, you may not have a future. He's thrown five great starts against Pittsburgh, posting a 0.75 ERA, notching 33 whiffs in 36 IP while allowing just 24 baserunners. A Pirate hasn't homered against Arrieta since Sept. 13, 2013. The only Pirate who can hit the guy is McCutchen (.879 OPS head-to-head), so when they face one another, those might be biggest three or four at-bats of the season for both teams.

2. Beating the best starting pitcher in baseball only earns them the right to face the best team in baseball.

While the Pirates played the season series to a near-draw against St. Louis (the Cardinals won 10 of 19 games), that's a tough gantlet to run just to get to the NLCS.

3. Losing Jung Ho Kang for the season cost them their one indispensable infielder.

Mixing and matching with Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Aramis Ramirez, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez is all very nice, but Kang was the one guy in the bunch with the bat you really want to have in your lineup. His season-ending injury on Chris Coghlan’s takeout slide little more than two weeks ago keeps all of the others in play a little more, without being able to deliver nearly as much.

4. Will the real J.A. Happ show up?

Happ has been outstanding for the Pirates, finishing with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts with Pittsburgh. But his ERA as a starting pitcher from 2009 through 2015 before he got traded to Pittsburgh is 4.30.

5. Is there a fifth reason?

The lack of a team theme song as perfect for today as Sister Sledge's “We are Family” was in 1979, the last time the Buccos won the World Series? The curse of the Pirate Parrot? Look, if these guys beat Arrieta on Wednesday and then beat the Cardinals, they can beat anybody, anywhere, any time.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.