With the pennant races heading into the last weekend of September, The Stew takes a closer look at the last BIG series of the regular season.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES AT CINCINNATI REDS
SITUATION: The Pirates (91-68) and Reds (90-69) are going to the playoffs; it's just a matter of where the wild card game will be played. Unless, that is, the Pirates and Cardinals (94-65) tie for first place in the NL Central and need to play each other in a division tiebreaker Monday. The only way that happens is if the Cardinals lose all three of their games this weekend against the Chicago Cubs and the Pirates sweep the Reds, who already have been eliminated from the division title. With the Cardinals also interested in getting home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, it's unlikely they'll let their guard down enough to get swept by a last-place team. Let's assume, for the sake of sanity, that the Cardinals take the division this weekend. That leaves the Bucs and Reds as the wild cards, playing a best two-of-three series to determine who hosts the one-and-done playoff game Tuesday. And, breathe.
PREVIOUSLY: The Pirates and Reds have split 16 games this season, and head-to-head record is the first wild-card tiebreaker, which is why whoever takes two of three this weekend will be seeded higher in the playoffs. The Reds took two of three at PNC Park from Sept. 20-22, winning 6-5 in 10 innings in the opener on a home run by Joey Votto. They also won the rubber game 11-3, with Bucs left-hander Jeff Locke getting roughed up in the first inning. He isn't scheduled to start this weekend.
Friday: A.J. Burnett (9-11 W-L, 3.39 ERA) vs. Homer Bailey (11-11, 3.40)
Saturday: Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.14) vs. Bronson Arroyo (14-11, 3.60)
Sunday: Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22) vs. Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82)
• Is this important or not? The Bucs deserved to whoop it up after clinching their first playoff berth since 1992, so they let the Jolly Roger fly. Conversely, the Reds have acted, and reacted, pretty cooly to clinching a playoff spot. They won the NL Central a year ago, and don't consider making the one-game wild card that much of an accomplishment — to the degree that they have said they won't do a champagne goggles-and-ugly-cap clubhouse rave until they make the NLDS round. And with the Bucs in a similar position, they probably won't act out too much this weekend if they win the series. Still, anyone would prefer home-field advantage, so both squads will put every effort into taking at least two at Great American Ball Park.
• How much is Billy Hamilton going to play? It's a tough call for manager Dusty Baker: Do you save him, like a closer in the bullpen, for a must-steal/score situation in the late innings, or do you let him take his chances by giving him several at-bats and starting him in the outfield? Hamilton, probably the fastest player in the league, is batting .389/.450/.500 with only three strikeouts in 20 plate appearances. But he's also 13-for-13 stealing bases and has scored nine runs. He disrupts.
One thing to consider is outfielder Ryan Ludwick (the likely odd-man out, if Hamilton plays) being below-average (for him) in 130 plate appearances since coming back from a shoulder injury. Is he on the verge of busting out? He does have a solid track record. He has playoff experience. He's been especially poor against right-handed pitching this season, but he has had success in a small sample size (a combined 6 for 14 with five walks) against Burnett and Morton. Prediction: Ludwick will play at least the first two games, then if the Reds still need a win, Hamilton will start Sunday.
• Can Burnett do a repeat? He struck out 12 over seven innings in his previous outing against the Reds, helping the Bucs take that middle game at home. Burnett has a 4.05 ERA in his past three starts, so he's been middle-of-the-road lately. They need top-of-the-rotation A.J. to make an appearance.
• Did the Reds catch a break avoiding a left-handed starter? Yes and no. Locke might have faded after making the All-Star team, but avoiding Francisco Liriano (at least until the wild-card game) is OK. The Reds' collective splits against lefties are weaker. Their best hitters are all lefties — Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo. However, their right-handed hitters are really weak against right-handed pitchers. So contributions from Brandon Phillips, Todd Frazier and ... anybody else, almost, would be a plus.
Is Gerrit Cole ready for his close-up? Probably a rookie in name only anymore, Cole has been the best pitcher on the Pirates since August. If home-field advantage comes down to Sunday, he'll get the start. The Cole Train has a 2.22 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 13 walks over his past eight appearances, covering 51 innings. He's allowed one home run in that span. He's also allowed a .356 batting average on balls in play, which indicates he's been somewhat unlucky.