After Friday night’s Tony Watson meltdown and last night’s Charlie Morton implosion, it felt like the Pirates were on a train ride directly into All-Star Break Hell after an awful week against two division opponents. Then, Andrew McCutchen put on his cape, bailed the team out, and now the Bucs are one win away from a 3-4 week against the Cardinals and Reds that I would’ve told you was a decent result a week ago. They can’t gain ground on the division lead today since the Brewers and Cardinals are tied for first and playing each other, but obviously a win will gain them ground on both the Reds and whoever loses that game, which would tie them for third place and put them within a game and a half of the second place team. Given where things were three weeks ago, I’ll take that, even if the Pirates’ bullpen has made what could’ve been a spectacular week into a mediocre one (not that the losses on Monday and Tuesday were guaranteed wins, but if the Pirates did win both of those and hold on to Friday’s lead, they’d be in first place right now, but hey, it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, as a fictional wizard once said).
The big news today, of course, is that Francisco Liriano is returning to the mound for the Pirates. For a month now, the health of both Liriano and Cole has been paramount to the team’s second half chances, and the Pirates are very obviously slow-rolling Cole’s return (from that tweet, I think it’s very hard to scrabble together a timeline that sees him returning before August). That means that for now it’ll be up to Liriano to help transform a pedestrian rotation into a pretty good one (we can and will discuss the implications of this at the All-Star Break, but with Morton, Volquez, and Locke all pitching really well, what the Pirates’ rotation is missing right now is just a flat-out stopper).
Liriano only made one rehab start this month and it went quite well as rehab starts go. At first, I was inclined to brush the results of that one off a bit. Triple-A baseball can be DEPRESSING after the super-two date but before second-half promotions, since most clubs now just stash a shadow team of replacement players in Triple-A. Seriously, check out the lineups from the Indianapolis/Durham game I was at two weeks ago. I changed my tune slightly on that when Tony Sanchez, who caught Liriano for much of the second half last year, tweeted that Liriano was “ready” and “vintage FILTH.” I put much more stock in Sanchez’s opinion than I do in a box score of a game I didn’t watch.
Liriano more or less admitted when he went down with his injury that he’d had a few other nagging injuries bugging him before the oblique problem, so hopefully a month off is what he needs to get himself right for the second half. There’s this “good year/bad year” narrative that follows Liriano around, and while I think that that’s at least partially bunk because it’s completely devoid of empirical evidence, my own personal hypothesis is that Liriano just is not a particularly durable guy. That means that in his good years, he throws a bunch of innings, and that leads to problems the next year, fewer innings, and a bad year, which then leaves him positioned for another good year a year or two later. Maybe an injury that forced him to just sit out a month and rest will turn out to be a good thing in the long-term, since it kept him from pitching through all of those other nagging problems and exacerbating them.
Anyway, he’ll face Johnny Cueto in this year’s second rematch of last year’s Wild Card Game. Cueto dominated the first one and he’s mostly dominated the Pirates all year, but I do think he’s looked kind of human in the last three weeks. He’s never been a huge strikeout guy, but his strikeouts were way up in April, May, and early June, which was part of how he got off to such a great start to the season. Beginning with his last start against the Pirates, though, he’s got a more pedestrian 25 strikeouts (and 11 walks) in 35 2/3 innings over seven starts. He’s still been very good in those seven starts, but he’s got a 2.52 ERA over those seven starts compared with his 1.85 ERA in his first 14. I don’t want to overstate my case here: what I think is that in his last few starts he looks more like the excellent Johnny Cueto of 2011-2013 than he does like the invincible Johnny Cueto of the first two months of 2014.
This will be the fourth time the Pirates have faced Cueto this year, and they’ve done a little better against him each time. In the first game, he threw a complete game three-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts. In the second game, threw a complete game three-hitter, but the Pirates scored once and only struck out four times. In the third game, the Pirates struck out twice, drew four walks, dinged Cueto for seven hits and two runs, chased him after six innings, and had a chance to win the game in the ninth except that the Jason Grilli experience was still on-going. Maybe the fourth time is the charm.
First pitch today is at 1:10.