You might expect that the easy focus during baseball's penultimate regular-season weekend is on guessing who's going to make it into October. Not so much in the National League, though, where the playoff slate has been essentially settled for weeks. No, in the NL this last week or so is a matter of sorting, to see who winds up winning the NL Central and who winds up having to play in the senior circuit’s play-in game. But if you figure the Cardinals win the division the way everyone expected months ago while the Reds and Pirates beat on each other this weekend and next, what do these games between the Pirates and Reds really mean, beyond temporary bragging rights before winner-take-all in the wild card on October 1?
On Saturday night, beyond one win or one loss, you could argue that what both teams got was intel that’s going to inform both teams’ biggest decision: Who starts that game on October 1? Both teams have a week-plus to make some tough decisions about what they’re going to have to ask their players to do, starting with the starters.
Let’s begin with A.J. Burnett’s showing against the Reds as the Pirates’ biggest potential takeaway, because as the best Batman would be quick to remind us, it’s been a while since concepts like “Pirates” and “October action” have been in the same conversation. In his previous pair of spins against the Reds this season, Burnett was anything but dominant, notching a textbook six-inning, three-run quality start in April and a bashing in July where the Reds scored five and put 13 men on base in 5 2/3 innings.
So seeing Burnett throw seven strong innings against a Reds lineup that had Joey Votto in it was very nice. It’s also important to remember Shin-Soo Choo wasn’t playing. Choo hasn’t entirely owned Burnett, but he’s done some damage -- three extra-base hits and three walks in 28 plate appearances -- and he’s the best leadoff hitter in the league. Add in Ryan Ludwick having good at-bats against Burnett now that he’s back in action, and I wouldn’t be so sure to say Burnett is the guy the Pirates must start in sudden-death action. Even allowing for the small sample sizes that are implicit with postseason play, Burnett got clobbered in a pair of Game 5 starts for the Yankees in 2009 (in the ALCS against the Angels, and against the Phillies in the World Series) and took another beating in the 2010 ALCS against the Rangers, a track record which helps explain why he’d get hooked in the sixth against the Tigers in the 2011 LDS while up by three runs. How much faith do you want to put in his Steel City renaissance, in sudden death?
But if not Burnett, who? Rookie Gerrit Cole, perhaps? Maybe Francisco Liriano, because the veteran lefty owns Choo going back to their long association in the AL Central (.412 OPS, with 10 whiffs in 32 PAs), and has done well against Votto as well. Not that Votto gets completely spavined by tough southpaws with an .845 OPS against his .976 OPS versus right-handers, but this year alone he’s losing 70 points of average and OBP and 60 points of slugging against southpaws. Using a total-offense metric like FanGraphs’ weight On-Base Average (wOBA), you can see the Reds’ .317 wOBA rates a decidedly mediocre 14th in the majors to the Pirates’ .310. If you had a chance to mitigate the damage that Votto or Choo might do against your team, to negate even that seemingly slender advantage on offense, wouldn’t you?
The second big takeaway from Saturday night was Jason Grilli getting the save, his first since July 21 and his first since his trip to the DL. Read into it what you will, whether a full loss of faith that top setup man Mark Melancon can nail down ninth-inning leads after his blown save on Wednesday night against the Padres, renewed confidence that Grilli is back, or an exaggerated sense of importance for who gets to wear the one “closer” merit badge in the clubhouse.
We can rail about this sort of thing because of the outsized significance that gets attached to every team’s designated saves-generator. But if Grilli’s getting this save and one or two more before season’s end gives Bucs skipper Clint Hurdle the confidence to put his pen pieces back in the order he had them in until Grilli got hurt, this could be a happy development. It’s also interesting that it might come at the exact moment the Cardinals are coming to the realization that their journeyman-turned-closer, Edward Mujica, might not be the perfect answer. If Grilli can handle the ninth with Melancon, Bryan Morris and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson in front of him, that sort of pen depth is a big part of the reason why the Pirates are here in the first place.
As for the Reds, if I’m Dusty Baker, I don’t invest this outcome with any particular significance whatsoever. Maybe that suits a lot of preconceived notions people have about Baker’s management style, but after this one loss I wouldn’t rule out starting Homer Bailey in a sudden-death game against the Pirates in a week. Bailey had already notched two quality starts against Pittsburgh earlier in the year, not to mention last year’s no-hitter against them. Mat Latos hasn’t done better than that against the Pirates this season, and turning to Bronson Arroyo hasn’t turned out so well in the past where the postseason is concerned. Tabbing Mike Leake in his breakthrough season would be a gutsy call, probably one that Dusty doesn’t make.
No, exasperating as Bailey can be for his seeming inconsistency, he might perfectly reflect the Reds themselves: capable of dominating at any time against anybody. Maybe sudden-death baseball will bring out the best in him. Maybe it will be Burnett’s big chance to completely close the door on his past rap for bombing with the Bombers in the postseason. Call Saturday night a dress rehearsal for both men, and we’ll see where they’re at in 10 days.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.