- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Whether or not you like the one-and-done format of the wild-card game, it does present a great opportunity to second guess everything the managers do, from roster management to pitching changes, bunts and, of course, when to use your closer.
Tim Kurkjian has five key questions for the game, but here some other key components on how this game may play out.
Obviously, to a large degree the outcome rests on the starting pitchers, even knowing quick hooks are in order. The Reds' three best hitters are Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, so that's why Clint Hurdle is going with Francisco Liriano, who held lefties to a .131/.175/.146 batting line. He allowed just two extra-base hits to left-handers, both doubles. Liriano had one blow-up 10-run start against the Rockies, but he's been very consistent all season. He had just one other start where he allowed more than four runs -- and that was against the Reds. Still, to beat Liriano, it's likely the Reds' right-handed batters that will have to do some damage.
Meanwhile, Mat Latos was the likely starter for the Reds until he admitted he had pain in his elbow, diagnosed as bone chips. So Johnny Cueto draws the start. He's made just two starts since missing three months with an oblique strain, similar to the injury that knocked him out of Game 1 of last year's Division Series. He pitched well in those two starts, but they came against the Astros and Mets, so it's hard to read too much into those. While he's made just 11 starts this season, don't forget how good this guy has been: 2.61 ERA over the past three seasons. Cueto throws a fastball, slider and cutter, but his big pitch is a changeup that induces a lot of groundballs. Over the past two seasons, batters are hitting just .217 against the changeup (and .097 in 2013 in 62 at-bats). He threw 99 pitches his last start, so he's ready to go as deep as Dusty Baker needs.
This is going to be an armchair manager's dream because there are going to be a ton of potential matchups that could come into play. For Hurdle, he's gone with a nine-man pitching staff. Gerrit Cole is the long man/extra-inning guy, with lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson available to face the Choo/Votto/Bruce section of the lineup. Wilson and Watson can both get righties out, so Hurdle doesn't have to treat them as LOOGYs. The right-handers are Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, plus Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez. Basically, assuming Liriano goes even just five innings, Hurdle should be able to get the matchups he wants in the late innings, as Baker doesn't really have many pinch-hitting/platoon options on his bench.
You could argue that Chris Heisey should be in the starting lineup over Choo, who hit .215 with no home runs against lefties. He did post a .347 OBP, but part of that was HBP-induced (he was hit by a league-leading 26 pitches) and Liriano didn't hit a batter. I realize Baker isn't going to suddenly change, but the numbers say this is a bad matchup for Choo.
The Reds are carrying four left-handers in the bullpen -- Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Manny Parra and Zach Duke -- and 10 pitchers overall (Mike Leake is the long man/extra-inning guy). The extra lefties give Baker the ability to match up with Pedro Alvarez, Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, all of whom have big platoon splits. Alvarez and Morneau will start with Jones coming off the bench. But Baker has to be worry about getting too cute here. Hurdle won't hit for Alvarez, but Gaby Sanchez is a platoon bat for Morneau and Jose Tabata is another right-handed bat. Keep in mind the Pirates are carrying an extra position player -- they have three catchers in Russell Martin, John Buck and Tony Sanchez -- so Hurdle has a deeper and more usable bench.
As home team, the Pirates have an advantage in using the closer in a tie game. If Baker waits to save Chapman for a save situation, he may never get him in the game. Of course, this doesn't have to be an advantage for the Pirates. Baker doesn't have to wait use Chapman until the Reds take the lead. Look at what happened to the Braves last year: Craig Kimbrel had maybe the greatest closer season of all time but didn't get in the game until it was already 6-3 in the ninth. In the meantime, the Cardinals scored two runs in the seventh inning (some shoddy defense hurt, but Kimbrel could have been used to potentially get out of the inning).
Billy Hamilton versus Martin. The rookie speedster is on the roster. Martin threw out 40 percent of base stealers.
Prediction: Liriano is tough, the Pirates have the ability to counteract Baker's moves, the bullpen does the job and Chapman doesn't make an impact. Pirates 4, Reds 2. (And I didn't even mention Andrew McCutchen!)