Can the Pirates Beat Jake Arietta?
10.02.15 Posted by Chris
Filed under: Playoffs (I can't believe I get to use this tag)
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that the Pirates are three back heading into this series. All season they’ve toyed with us, falling far enough back for many of us to give up on the division, only to come roaring back each time. The prospect of catching the Cardinals has been in our reach, but out of our grasp.
If we were two games back, there’d be a lot more ambiguity about what needs to be done. We could merely win this series and head into the final three games down one. And who knows? Even with the Cards facing the lowly Braves (and the Bucs facing the lowly-except-against-us Reds), we might make up that game. But it’s more likely we wouldn’t, which means we’d have one more dip in the emotional roller coaster.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll take any reduction in this deficit. But the silver lining is that we now have clarity about this series: we need to sweep. We play the Cardinals three times. We are three games behind. Simple.
Game one features J.A. Happ, who’s been less than stellar the last few starts. That’s not deliberate understatement: he was stellar before, and lately he’s been a little less than stellar. He still hasn’t had a bad start in nearly two months. His mound opponent, however, has had quite a few: Lance Lynn has a 6.11 ERA in September, during which he’s walked as many as he’s struck out. His last start was strong, but he’s failed to go even four innings in two of his last four.
This is a game we should usually win. So is the finale, with Gerrit Cole starting. Tomorrow (Morton vs. Wacha) is the game to worry about most. But they’re all at home, and we’ve gotta win them all.
All year we’ve waited for the Cardinals to slow, to regress, to stop secreting horseshoes from every orifice. Well, it’s happened: St. Louis is 13-12 in September. Their pitching has been mediocre and their offense has survived almost entirely on untenable spasms of sequencing fortune.
They’ve given us the opening. The dragon is missing a scale. Hoist the black flag and fire the black arrow.
When a starting pitcher is dominant, it’s common to say they “won the game by themselves.” This usually isn’t true, because you can’t win without scoring at least one run. Well, Jake Arietta took care of that, too: he failed to give up a run, and hit a solo homer. So yeah, he really did win this one almost entirely by himself.
He wasn’t just dominant, either: he was perfect through six, and it wasn’t luck. There weren’t lots of snagged line drives, or deep flies held in by the wind, or any of other things that usually accompany games where the Pirates don’t bang out at least nine hits.
If you’re looking for hope, you could probably find it in that the home field advantage at home plate seemed pretty evident: Arietta got plenty of borderline calls, and A.J. Burnett (who was decent and seems like he’s going to be useful for however much longer the season is) got squeezed. That figures to flip in PNC Park on October 7th. And while Arietta has completely owned us this year, generally speaking, the more you face a pitcher the better your chances are going to be, and we’ve faced him a lot. I’d still rather face almost anyone else in baseball, but home field and another look at him a little over a week from now should probably stop you from jumping off any bridges in a city full of them.
The Bucs still took the series and are still on pace for a ridiculous 99 wins. The Cardinals lost in dramatic fashion yesterday, so the distance remains three.
I’m not going to tell you tomorrow’s game against Jake Arietta isn’t winnable. The last time we faced him, we chipped away, kept the game close, and put ourselves in a great position to win before losing inexplicably in extra innings. We can do it again. But in any given game, you’re just playing marginal probabilities. And in all probability, if the Pirates win this series, it’ll be by winning today, rather than tomorrow.
The Pirates trot Francisco Liriano out to the mound. Liriano’s slowed a bit recently, because this is basically as many innings as he’s ever thrown. It’s easy to forget this in part because injuries the past couple of years kept his innings down, which may not have been much of a net negative. Liriano got knocked around in Milwaukee recently and there was open talk by management about managing his level of fatigue. Because of the starting pitcher glut (not that Jeff Locke is someone you absolutely, positively have to find room in the rotation for), along with high totals for Liriano and Cole and Burnett working himself back from injury, the decision was made to temporarily expand the rotation to line things up for the important games and give some guys a little extra rest.
For Liriano, it worked: he got an extra day of rest heading into his last start, and held the Dodgers to just two runs in seven innings, with nine Ks. He’s getting two extra days this time. Liriano throws against Jason Hammel, who the Bucs made quick work of the last time out.
While a top-of-his-game Gerrit Cole is the single most important thing to have right now, with the Wild Card looming, an effective Francisco Liriano is a big part of what lies beyond that, if anything.
The Pirates are 4.5 up on the Cubs with eight to play, which means a win today all-but-clinches a home Wild Card game. But a loss, with Arietta looming tomorrow, all-but-assures that we’re sweating it out the rest of the way. First pitch is at 1:05 PM.
In the last couple of recaps of Gerrit Cole’s starts, I’ve talked about how the general way he’s pitching heading into the postseason might be more important than whether or not we actually win the games in question. That’s a little different now, with the Cardinals losing and the Bucs now just three back in the Central. But the Wild Card is still the most likely outcome, so as much as I enjoy the wins, I’m still more encouraged by the fact that Cole’s been pitching well down the stretch.
Occasionally, people have pointed out that, as frustrating as it is to win this many games and still be in second, it’s got to be pretty frustrating for the Cardinals to be on pace for 100 wins and still be sweating in the last weeks of the season. That’s a fair point (though the sympathy will only be warranted if they actually fall short for once). Allow me to offer a similar perspective shift: think about how terrified you are of Jake Arietta in the Wild Card game. Now imagine you’re the Cubs, knowing you have to face Gerrit Cole, who just shut you down at home. The Cubs are like spiders: they’re probably as scared of you as you are of them.
Even though the Bucs are three games back, they control their own destiny, because three of those games are against St. Louis. It doesn’t mean a lot to say that, because winning eight more consecutive baseball games is pretty much out of the question, but it’s a better position to be in than they were yesterday.
When the Pirates clinched a postseason berth for the third consecutive year, every media outlet that reported on it noted that the celebration was muted. This is common when a team is made up of players who’ve reached this level before and have higher ambitions. Sip a little cham-pagn-ye and grip the next rung of the ladder.
The next rung, in this case, is making sure that playoff game is played in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have won two-thirds of their home games this year, so that would be a pretty big deal. And they’re in a very good position to make it happen: their sweep in Colorado has put them 3.5 games up on the Cubs for the first Wild Card spot, which means they’ll still be in line for a home game even if they’re swept in this upcoming series. That’s a nice place to be.
Not as nice is the fact that the Cubs are throwing both Lester and Arietta at us this series, so it’s easy to envision a series where the Bucs play pretty well and get swept anyway. But win this series and a home playoff game is all but assured. Heck, scrape out even one win and it still becomes pretty likely.
Ideally, we’d want to make up a game on St. Louis in this series so that a sweep against them in the next series (not that it would be easy) would bring us (finally) even in first. That’s a tall order against these pitchers, and this Cubs team, especially with St. Louis playing three against Milwaukee at home.
But, the games have to be actually played, and this Pirate team has shown time and time again they can play with anybody. Today, anybody is the Cubs. And it’s Gerrit Cole Day, to boot.
First pitch is at 2:20 PM.
Almost everything about this season has felt magical: huge, dramatic comeback wins against the Cardinals heading into the break, Cutch going on a nearly-season-long tear after calling himself out for a slow start, the team winning on after injuries to three starters, Aramis Ramirez returning to end his career, J.A. Happ transforming, and on and on. And last night’s win, where Pedro Alvarez smashed a three-run homer to give the Pirates a four-game sweep (on the road!), was another one of those “season of destiny” moments.
Except, of course, for the Cardinals, who’ve been ahead every step of the way, and won again last night even after falling behind 3-0.
There’s really just not much to be said: the Pirates are an incredibly good team, and if they manage to go even 5-4 the rest of the way they’ll have as many wins as any of the early 1990s teams. The Cardinals have been slightly better, thanks in large part to a pitching staff that’s significantly outperformed its peripherals. As has been the case for the last six or seven years, they’re distributing their wins across each season in an almost perfectly efficient way, even though we know that’s not an actual skill. Whatareyougonnado?
If you’re the Pirates, what youregonnado is just keep winning, and hope St. Louis stumbles. In this four-game sweep, the Bucs scored 33 runs (giving up 17, which isn’t bad for Colorado) and banged out a ridiculous 57 hits. They’re now second in the NL in hits.
They’ve also now clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive year. I might write about this later, but it’s really encouraging that I’m not sure I have to. This is business as usual now.
Jeff Locke was shaky. The bullpen pitched more than a third of the game without allowing a run, and Mark Melancon hit the 50-save mark. It was a great win in a season full of great wins. It’s just all happening during the wrong season.
Yesterday’s game was a cake walk, but to be fair, it was the game we were most likely to win: it’s the only one of the four where we’re scheduled to throw someone who would, as far as we can say, probably start a game in the Division Series. But the guy going tonight, J.A. Happ, would be next in line for that particular honor, and he’s had quite a run since joining the Bucs.
Happ throws against Chris Rusin. It occurs to me I’ve backed myself into a corner, because when we face a starter who strikes out fewer than 7 batters per 9 innings, I’ll often say they “don’t strike anyone out.” So I find myself with nowhere to go when describing Chris Rusin, who strikes out just 5.96 batters per 9 innings. He does, however, induce a strong number of ground balls, and his xFIP is a respectable 4.09. But both his FIP and ERA are bad-to-really-bad.
The Pirates faced Rusin on August 29th, and put up three runs in six innings against him, en route to a 4-3 win. I would expect them to do better than that tonight, though Rusin has had a lot of all-or-nothing starts lately. He threw a shutout against San Diego a month ago, then gave up 11 runs in two innings the very next time out. Two starts after that he threw a complete game (three runs). My money’s on us getting to him, though.
Cubs are off. Cards are huge favorites against Cincy. First pitch is at 8:40 PM.
Quick victory lap: I pointed out yesterday that Jon Gray had only give up two home runs this year, but that I “have a feeling we might double that tonight.” We did; in the first inning.
Now that that self-aggrandizing is out of the way: the Pirates banged out 15 hits and nine runs, Burnett looked okay (especially considering he’s still working his way back), and the bullpen was lights out again. Easy win. Unfortunately, the Cards rallied in the 8th inning and pulled out a win of their own, so all we do is keep pace. But there’s still time to make up a game before the Big Cardinals Series (notice how every Cardinals series becomes the Big Cardinals Series now?).
One of the more encouraging aspects of the offensive output is that Jordy Mercer went 4 for 5. With Kang out for the year, Mercer becomes our biggest offensive question mark; if he can be even average with the bat going forward, that’s a big deal.