NLDS Game 4 Preview: Finish it today (Charlie Morton vs. Michael Wacha)

I will not, at any point for the rest of this postseason, tell you that there is a game that I don't think that the Pittsburgh Pirates can win. Once a team gets to this point, and once they win games like Tuesday's Wild Card Game and last night's NLDS Game 3 thriller, literally anything is possible. What I will tell you is this: as a Pirate fan, I want pretty much nothing to do with a Game 5. I don't want the Pirates to travel back to St. Louis, I don't want to face Adam Wainwright in a winner-take-all game, I don't want a second winner-take-all game in eight days to begin with, and I don't want anything to do with the decision that Clint Hurdle will have to make about a Game 5 starter (we'll talk more about this if this becomes an issue, but I'll tell you right now that my gut feeling is that he'd pick AJ Burnett and that if that is indeed the case, I really don't want to know that that's the decision he'd make — ignorance truly is bliss in this circumstance). Put simply, the Pirates can win a Game 5 in St. Louis, but I'd rather they not have to do it. 

Enter Charlie Morton. Is there anyone more representative of the peaks and valleys of the last few seasons than Charlie Morton? He was the primary return in the Nate McLouth trade; a relatively shocking mid-May trade that signaled that the Pirates really, truly were in a rebuilding mode that was focused beyond 2009 and more towards. He struggled badly in 2010, completely rebuilt his mechanics and approach in 2011, blew out his elbow in 2012, entered 2013 as an afterthought, came back with the best stuff and results of his career in 2013. He's finally managed to combine a harder four-seam fastball with his nasty sinker and curve, which has given him some more depth-of-stuff this year than he's had in the past. 

Morton has been really good and very consistent since the beginning of August this year with one exception: the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards touched him up for five runs on August 1st (the 13-0 game) and they did it again in just 1 2/3 innings on September 8th. Morton also put together a strong start against the Cards in the Starling Marte Drop Game on August 13th, though it's worth noting that he put nine Cardinals on base in his six innings (two walks, seven hits) and spent most of the game dancing between rain drops while holding the Cardinals to two runs. Even with the harder fastball to mix with his curve and sinker, lefties have an .848 OPS against Morton this year, and the Cardinals have Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran and Matt Adams and even Jon Jay in their lineup. Morton might be able to avoid getting shelled the way he did last time out against the Cardinals, but he's hardly the best starter the Pirates can put on the mound against them. 

The key for today's game, besides Morton doing something get through five or so innings and containing the Cardinals, is how Michael Wacha handles the game. As Travis Sawchik wrote in the Trib this morning, Wacha presents all of the matchup problems that were more or less implied in the seven shutout innings that he threw against Morton and the Pirates on September 8th (he held the Pirates to two hits, despite only striking out two and walking two). He's got a very good fastball/changeup combination and most of his starts this year (Mike Matheny has shuttled him between the bullpen and the rotation, plus he's spent some time in Triple-A) have been quite good. In the three starts that he made after his start against the Pirates, he struck out 23 hitters in 18 1/3 innings and threw a near-no hitter in the Cardinals' playoff clincher against the Nationals. He did have control problems against the Mariners, though (four walks in 5 innings) and he gave up a bunch of hits to the Rockies (12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3). 

In general, what I would note about Wacha is this: he's a 22-year old rookie that was in college a little over a year ago and he's only got nine Major League starts under his belt. Of those nine starts four have failed to go over five innings. He hasn't pitched since that clincher against the Nats on September 24th, which is almost a two-week layoff. Wacha is a really talented young pitcher, but think about Gerrit Cole's first 15 starts as a big leaguer this year; he was obviously talented, but he alternated between dominating and maddening, sometimes in the same inning. He sometimes took a few innings to settle in, particularly when he'd pitched after a long layoff. 

In any case, I'm not trying to make any sorts of predictions here; I'm simply pointing out that the circumstances may mean that the pitching mismatch in this game may not be as pronounced as it appears from a distance. Clint Hurdle will likely not be nearly as slow to pull Morton from this game as he was to pull Burnett — he yanked Morton with a lead in the fifth inning against the Reds on the regular season's final Saturday — and he's got innings in both Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez if he needs them today. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have gone to the bullpen a total of ten times in the last two games. All of those have been short relief stints, but as a Pirate fan I think it's fair to hope that there's some kind of cumulative effect from dipping into the same well so many times. 

The long and short of it is that I think that the Pirates need to treat today's game as a borderline must-win. They need to minimize whatever damage the Cardinals do against Morton, either with Morton himself pitching better than he has against the Cardinals in the past or with a quick hook. If Wacha does show any sort of weakness early on; wildness, inability to command his changeup quite right, anything, then the Pirates need to jump on it right out of the gates before he settles in. It's not really the second part that concerns me right now; the Bucs have jumped all over early opportunities presented Johnny Cueto, Lance Lynn, and Joe Kelly in the first part of the playoffs this year. There's no guarantee that Wacha will present them with those opportunities, though, just like there's no guarantee that Morton will be able to give the Bucs what they need on the mound today. 

Still, this is PNC Park in an October elimination game, and the opponent is sending a relatively untested rookie to the mound. Charlie Morton has the raw talent to hold the Cardinals in check. Despite all of the reservations I have about this pitching matchup, I think this is very much a winnable game for the Pirates. A win today renders the questions we have about Game 5 completely moot. A win today puts the Pirates into the NLCS.

The first pitch today is at 3:07. The weather is supposed to clear up by gametime. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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