So it’s come to this, eh?
A three-game showdown separated by 1,700 miles is about to begin. The Pittsburgh Pirates have hard-charged their way into a season-ending playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals for first place atop the National League Central division.
No, the two teams don’t face each other this weekend, but they might as well be, with the fate of the division crown hanging in the balance.
The Cardinals face off against the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks, likely the worst team in all of baseball this year, needing to win at least two of three games to fend off automatic elimination from the race for first. Winning just two paired with a Pirates sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati would leave both teams tied for the division title, necessitating a tie-breaking game in St. Louis.
The Cardinals started selling tickets for that game today…just in case.
But if the Pirates falter, even in one game, they leave the door wide open for a St. Louis clincher as early as Saturday night. And that would be huge for the Redbirds, who look to start Adam Wainwright in the final game of the season on Sunday…unless they don’t.
A clinching scenario that allows the Cardinals to wake up division champs on Sunday morning means Wainwright, recently recovered from an August dead-arm phase, could skip a start and then some, looking ahead to Game 1 of the NLDS against Clayton Kershaw and the LA Dodgers.
That would be ideal. It also may not be likely.
Yesterday, we took a look at the pitching match-ups facing the Buccos Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Here they are again, for quick reference, with the Pirates’ slash line against each hurler:
Mike Leake: .283/.327/.354 (Friday)
Alfredo Simon: .195/.303/.312 (Saturday)
Johnny Cueto: .192/.252/.336 (Sunday)
And just to round out the picture, here’s the starting pitchers scheduled to throw against the Reds, complete with Cincy’s slash lines as well:
Vance Worley: .233/.303/.433 (Friday)
Francisco Liriano: .219/.321/.365 (Saturday)
Gerrit Cole: .375/.444/.667 (Sunday)
By starting pitching match-ups alone, one could reasonably expect Pittsburgh to win game one on Friday and lose game three on Sunday (against Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto) with game two a toss-up in between, but that prediction is by no means a guarantee. In fact, the Cardinals, who snuck into the playoffs on their way to a World Series win on the last day of the season in 2011, know better than anyone just how unpredictable the last series of the season can be.
Mike Matheny’s Potential Juggling Act…
Let’s assume for a moment that St. Louis and Pittsburgh both win on Friday, but Pittsburgh wins on Saturday while St. Louis drops their game that night. The two teams would be tied heading into Sunday, and that means Adam Wainwright is absolutely pitching.
On the other hand, if the Pirates lose game one on Friday or game two on Saturday, and the Cardinals win both games on their schedule, then the Redbirds get to celebrate Saturday night and Wainwright would not be pitching Sunday afternoon.
So far, things seem fairly easy, right? The Cardinals and Pirates wake up tied on Sunday, then Wainwright is pitching. If the Cardinals clinch Saturday night, then Wainwright is not pitching.
But what if both teams remain separated by one game on Sunday morning? Would Adam Wainwright be in line to pitch then?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Remember the fact above about the Cardinals and Pirates playing their games 1,700 miles apart? Well, here’s where that matters.
Cincinnati, where the Pirates will be playing Sunday afternoon, starts play around noon Central Time (CT)…three hours before the Cardinals take the field in Arizona at about 3:00 p.m. CT. That means the Pirates have just enough time to get their game in before Adam Wainwright takes the mound in the bottom half of the first inning.
If the Cardinals are leading the Pirates by 1.0 games on Sunday morning, and Pittsburgh loses by game time in Arizona, don’t expect Waino to pitch at all. If, however, Pittsburgh loses but the game goes long, Wainwright could start the game only to exit by the second or third frame when the Reds/Pirates contest wraps up.
But that’s not all.
What if the worst happens, and St. Louis drops both Friday and Saturday’s games while Pittsburgh wins both of their games? The Pirates would start Sunday’s game in Cincy with a 1.0 game lead on the Cardinals. If they go on to win their game by the time the Cardinals start play on Sunday, don’t expect Adam Wainwright to take the mound…because the Pirates will have already clinched the division.
Adam Wainwright will, instead, be saved for the Wild Card game in Busch Stadium on Wednesday evening…against the San Francisco Giants…maybe.
And there’s where the final wrinkle comes into play.
If Pirates overtake the Cardinals for the division title, then things get potentially complicated for the Redbirds. Currently, the Cardinals have two more wins and two fewer losses than the Giants overall, but San Francisco has the edge in terms of head-to-head games played against the Cardinals in 2014 (4-3). That means the Wild Card game, if the Cardinals maintain a lead over the Giants, would be played in Busch Stadium. But if they don’t…if the Cardinals finish tied or behind the Giants by the end of Sunday’s deciding game…then the Cardinals will go to San Francisco to play the one-and-done Wild Card game in the National League.
San Francisco plays the San Diego Padres this weekend. If the Pirates win all three games this weekend, and if the Giants win both of their first two games, and if St. Louis loses both of their first two games in Arizona…Mike Matheny has a decision to make.
Does he hold Adam Wainwright back, hoping his team can pull out a win on Sunday without him but betting the team can win behind Waino in San Francisco if not…or does he count on the Cardinals’ stellar record at home (one of the best in baseball at 51-30) and throw Waino on Sunday in the hopes of bringing the WC game back to Missouri?
It looks like Mike Matheny could have a few balls to juggle leading right up to game time on Sunday in Arizona. It looks like both Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller better come to the ballpark Sunday afternoon ready to pitch.
— GO CARDS!!!