Today is the last off-day of the regular season. It feels a little disingenuous to call this "the last off-day," because we know that the Pirates will play on Tuesday and so Monday is also an off-day, but this is the last off-day of the 2013 regular season. I have a few thoughts that I wanted to share, and now seems like a good time.
The first is this: don't attach too much importance to this weekend's games. Obviously we all want that wild card game to be at PNC Park, for reasons boht stated (because the Pirates and Francisco Liriano are better there) ad unstated (there might only be one playoff game this year and it would really suck for there to not be a playoff game at PNC Park). The reality, though, is that all of the things that terrify us about one-game playoffs can also be applied back in the Pirates' favor, and that can happen whether the game is in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. I don't really know if these three games even have any predictive power, especially since we know that the Pirates and Reds have been so even in head-to-head matchups this year; Tuesday's starters won't be pitching at any point over the weekend and Monday's off-day should mean that the bullpens will be mostly rested. Winning two games this weekend would be awesome from the fan's standpoint and nice from the team's standpoint, but I really don't feel like it's pivotal.
At this point, my absolute biggest fear for the wild card game is exactly what happened yesterday. Francisco Liriano is a really good pitcher when he's on, but it seems like he's running out of gas quicker and quicker right now and Clint Hurdle tends to wait until after the damage is done to pull him from the game. With a pitch count nearing 90 and seven hits allowed in the first five innings, it seemed clear that Liriano didn't have his best stuff yesterday. He got into immediate trouble in the sixth, but it wasn't until after Darnell McDonald's homer that he was pulled. If Hurdle leaves him on the mound for a batter too long on Tuesday, the season is over. Given that Hurdle's proclivity is to leave Liriano and AJ Burnett both on the mound for a batter too long, I'm terrified of this.
At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron's got some suggestions as to how the Pirates should handle the game with their pitching staff. I don't really think that Hurdle would ever do anything as extreme as pulling Liriano out of the game after 14 hitters if he's cruised through them, but I do think that there are a few things that can be learned from that post and actually implemented. One is simply this: pay as much attention to times through the order as you do to pitch count. If Liriano's control is faltering against the bottom of the order and the lineup is about to turn over for its third pass, get him out of the game even if game is low-scoring and close. Don't be afraid to mix and match relievers to get Wilson, Watson, and Melancon on the mound against Choo, Votto, and Bruce, whether it's the fifth inning or ninth inning. Everything about baseball, particularly the regular season, is geared towards long-term results. The wild card game is the antithesis of that. Most likely, the game will come down to a coin flip, but the manager that's most willing to go outside of the box could give his team an advantage. I can assure you that Dusty Baker won't, so the ball is in Hurdle's court.