A week ago, it would have been preposterous to suggest the Pittsburgh Pirates might bypass their most veteran starting pitcher in favor of a 22-year-old rookie in a winner-take-all elimination game in the playoffs. After all, A.J. Burnett led the Pirates in innings pitched and strikeouts in each of the past two seasons, and he closed out his 2013 season with a pair of critical wins over the Cincinnati Reds with home-field advantage for the Wild Card game at stake.
But that was before Burnett imploded against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, giving up seven runs in the third inning without recording an out – and reviving memories of his past postseason meltdowns — and that was before rookie Gerrit Cole followed up by firing six dazzling innings in Game 2 to help square the series.
And so, when it came time for Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle to pick one them for the assignment of facing the Cardinals in Wednesday night’s decisive Game 5, it no longer seemed so surprising when he chose Cole. Hurdle did it as tactfully as he could, pinning the decision on Burnett’s checkered history at Busch Stadium, but one suspects the venue really wouldn’t have mattered, and that in reality the Pirates simply trusted Cole more than Burnett with their season on the line.
This postseason has only served to emphasize the aggressive strategizing that October requires, when each game is exponentially more important than a corresponding regular-season one.
We have seen the Los Angeles Dodgers rewarded for their decision to throw ace lefty Clayton Kershaw on three days’ rest in Game 4 of their NLDS against Atlanta, rather than save him for a possible Game 5. On Tuesday night, in Game 4 of the ALDS, we saw Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland bypass his middle relievers and go with starter Max Scherzer as the bridge to his closer — and despite Scherzer’s shakiness, it worked.
Conversely, in the same game that featured Kershaw’s short-rest start, we saw the Braves suffer the awful consequences when Manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to go with trusted set-up man David Carpenter to protect a one-run lead in the eighth inning of that game, rather than use uber-closer Craig Kimbrel for what would have been a six-out save – because, as Gonzalez said, that’s how they had been doing it all year.
The problem is, October isn’t at all like the rest of the year. When you have a chance to nail down a series behind the best pitcher on the planet, as the Dodgers did, you take it. When you have a 21-game winner at your disposal — on his regular bullpen “throw” day, as with Scherzer and the Tigers — you use him with the game on the line, simply because he’s better than what you have in your bullpen. When your next loss would end your season, you don’t let yourself lose, as the Braves did, with your best pitcher standing in the bullpen with his hands on his hips.
Regular-season protocol doesn’t matter in October, nor do the feelings of the guy(s) you’re bypassing.
Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals, 8:07 p.m., TBS
Pirates: Cole (1-0, 1.50) | Cardinals: Wainwright (1-0, 1.29)