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Did Pirates mess up by starting Cole?

9/28/2014

You can't fault the way Gerrit Cole pitched Sunday for the Pittsburgh Pirates: Seven innings, four hits, one run, 12 strikeouts. But it wasn't enough as Johnny Cueto throttled the Pirates' lineup, and the Reds scored three runs in the eighth off the Pittsburgh bullpen, giving the NL Central title to the St. Louis Cardinals.

So the question: Should the Pirates have started Cole? Three things had to happen for the Pirates to win the division:

--The Pirates had to beat Cueto, one of the top starters in the majors, and a guy you figured would bring his A-game as he aimed for his 20th victory.

--They would need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals, with Adam Wainwright the scheduled starter for St. Louis.

--They would then have to beat the Cardinals on Monday, with the struggling Jeff Locke the likely starter.

If all those things didn't happen, that meant the Pirates would have to dig deeper into their rotation for their starter in the wild-card game, either Vance Worley or Edinson Volquez.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it was an easy decision to go with Cole. Hurdle said everyone in the organization was on the same page -- general manager Neal Huntington, team president Frank Coonelly and chairman Bob Nutting. "We tried to play the logical game," Hurdle said before the game. "At the end of the day, after every conversation with every player, the coaching staff, Neal, Bob, Frank -- no way we walk away from an opportunity to win our division."

It's easy to second-guess the decision after the fact, but I had raised the issue before this game. Clearly, the math was against it working: You had to rate the Reds the slight favorite Sunday with Cueto starting, and the Cardinals the big favorite against the Diamondbacks with Wainwright starting, and if it got to Monday, the edge to the Cardinals with Locke starting and the Pirates on the road, where they don't play as well.

But it's also easy to understand why the Pirates started Cole. "To pitch [Stolmy] Pimentel or [Casey] Sadler after 161 games of grit and fight and battle ... We're trying to make history here," Hurdle said. "There is no guarantee of how to cut this thing up. So you do what you believe in, and we'll attack it this way."

Plus, you can look at the wild-card game two ways: You have to win that to advance, so you want your best possible starter in that game; or, you can view it as just one step along the way, and since it's essentially a coin-flip game anyway, having your best setup for the division series is important, and by starting Cole on Sunday, he'll now be available (along with Francisco Liriano) to start Game 1 of the division series Friday if the Pirates get there.

My first thought was that I would not have started Cole and saved him for Wednesday. But after reading Hurdle's quote, I think maybe he's right: You can't tell your players you're not giving them the best effort to win the division.

Plus, all of that undersells Worley, who is 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts (and one relief appearance) ... except all indications are Volquez will start Wednesday. But Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless starts and has allowed just seven runs over his past six starts. His control can still be shaky, and his 10-strikeout game in his last turn came against the hapless Braves, so you don't want to overrate that, but he is pitching his best baseball of the season.

And Hurdle will have the luxury of Worley in the bullpen if needed in long relief and a deep bullpen. You would expect Volquez to be on a short leash if he starts walking guys.

Still, if I'm the San Francisco Giants, I'm happy about how Sunday unfolded. As Cole showed, he's capable of a dominant effort every time out with his big-time stuff. The Giants will have Madison Bumgarner going against Volquez, and even though the game is in Pittsburgh, the Giants have to like that matchup.