If the Pirates qualify for the postseason, it most likely will be as the National League's second wild-card team. That means a one-game, winner-moves-on showdown, probably on the road against the San Francisco Giants.
Who do you want on the mound?
Last season, left-hander Francisco Liriano started the wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates chose Liriano, knowing they had A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole lined up for the first two games of the NL Division Series.
It made perfect sense. Liriano was a Cy Young Award candidate and the league's Comeback Player of the Year, Burnett was a postseason veteran and a strikeout ace, and Cole was dominant down the stretch of his rookie season.
Liriano muzzled the Reds in the wild-card game, allowing one run on four hits over seven innings. He turned in another solid start in Game 3 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.
This year, the choice of who to start in the wild-card game is not as clear.
Burnett, of course, is gone. Liriano was the Opening Day starter but has won just five games. Cole spent a month on the disabled list and lately has looked more like Cole Lite than a phenom. Edinson Volquez was pegged as a back-of-the-rotation guy in April yet leads the team with 11 victories.
The choice here is Cole.
He is not the Pirates' most experienced pitcher, nor has he been the most efficient at times this season, but Cole is the best they have.
If the wild-card scenario was a best-of-three series, manager Clint Hurdle could agonize over every sabermetric angle or select the guy with the most tenure for Game 1. In a do-or-die game, the choice should be Cole.
Starting the wild-card game would be Cole's unofficial coronation as staff ace, a title he figures to hold going into next season. He's got the best raw stuff on the staff. He is fearless. He is intimidating. He has pitched in big games before. If Cole is healthy, there is no reason not to select him.
Liriano was great in July, solid in August and into September. But there remains an element of doubt in the first inning: Will today be Good Frankie or Bad Frankie?
Volquez has proven to be one of the biggest surprises from last winter's free-agent market and has outperformed his $5 million contract. Yet he has been plagued in many games by one big, bad inning. There's no margin for that kind of error in a wild-card game.
With two weeks of games still to play and the wild-card race still wide open, is it too early to think about a starting pitcher? Not at all. In fact, this is when plans must be laid.
If he wants to start Cole in the wild-card game, Hurdle must shuffle his rotation a bit. Cole pitched Friday, which would put him on track to work again in the regular-season finale Sept. 28 in Cincinnati. He couldn't do that, then pitch again 48 hours later in San Francisco.
Following the off day Monday, the Pirates close with 13 straight games. Down that stretch, Hurdle could slip in Charlie Morton for a spot start to line up the rotation for the playoffs.
In a perfect world, the Pirates clinch a wild-card spot before the last game of the season. Morton faces the Reds that afternoon, while Cole throws a short bullpen session and locks his attention on the Giants.
Then Hurdle can start worrying about Game 1 of the NLDS.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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