The NL Central Comes Down to Game 162; Who Should Start a Tiebreaker Game?

This has been a crazy season. The Pittsburgh Pirates had a horrible month of April, went back and forth all summer between being borderline contenders and borderline out of the race, lost a lot of key players for various stretches, had a horrible record against everyone in their division except the Cubs, and now we enter the final day of the season and they still have a shot at winning the division.

The Pirates and Cardinals both lost today, which maintains the one game lead that St. Louis has in the Central. Pittsburgh plays tomorrow at 1:10. The Cardinals play at 4:10. By the time the Cardinals game rolls around, we will know whether the Pirates have a shot at the division, or whether they will be relegated to the Wild Card game. If the Pirates win and the Cardinals lose tomorrow, then the two teams would square off in St. Louis on Monday to decide the division.

Obviously it’s better to have a shot at the division than just settling for a Wild Card spot. If you lose that one game playoff on Monday, then you still have another one game playoff to allow you to get to the NLDS. The question is, who should start the next two games?

Any suggestion saying Gerrit Cole should be held back until Monday is basically the same as a manager holding back the closer for a potential save situation in extra innings, and letting a lesser reliever pitch first. Yeah, the best reliever will be available for the save, but you might not even have a save opportunity if the weaker reliever doesn’t come through. We don’t know what will happen with St. Louis tomorrow. What we do know is that the Cardinals game becomes irrelevant if the Pirates don’t win tomorrow. Cole gives them the best chance to win. As of this writing, Cole is listed as the starter.

If the Pirates do face a tiebreaker for the division, and if Cole pitches tomorrow, then the two options would be:

Edinson Volquez – Would be pitching on four days rest, but has been strong lately, and has a 3.16 ERA in 31.1 innings against the Cardinals this year.

Jeff Locke – Would be pitching on normal rest, but has struggled in the second half, and hasn’t been good against St. Louis this year.

It’s basically a choice of a better pitcher on short rest, or a struggling pitcher on full rest. That’s not really a choice at all. Volquez should be the guy in a one game playoff for the division. If he loses, you’ve got your best starter, Francisco Liriano, available on Wednesday.

Of course, that does add another wrinkle. There were indications that Liriano wasn’t himself in his last outing, which might raise questions about his availability and effectiveness on Wednesday. If he’s not effective, or can’t go, then the Pirates are turning to Vance Worley and/or Jeff Locke in the Wild Card game, assuming they went with Cole and Volquez on Sunday and Monday.

The situation will become more clear tomorrow, whether that’s around 4:00 when the Pirates game is wrapping up, or around 7 when the Cardinals game is finishing. Cole should start tomorrow to keep the Pirates alive, and if they force the playoff, it should be Volquez trying to win the division.

Playoff Seeding

Here are the current playoff seeds if the season would end today. The winner of the Wild Card game would go on to play the Washington Nationals, who clinched home field advantage today.

1. Washington

2. Los Angeles

3. St. Louis

4. Pittsburgh

5. San Francisco

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Andy Prough

Thanks bullpen! That worked out freaking great the past two days. Excuse me while I gouge my eyeballs out with a rusty fork.


The bullpen the last two nights have me a little worried headed into the post season, especially with another 1-game-playoff looming with the WC game.


No batting title for Harrison. Rockies sat Morneau last night and are anticipated to do so again tonight, or only give Morneau enough ABs to ensure he can’t lose it.

Where have you gone Ted Williams?


A defining moment in Hurdle’s Pirates’ career? This is a gut check decision as there are plusses and minuses for both strategies. It would not surprise me if Hurdle looked to the team’s leadership for input. The final decision is Hurdle’s, but I can see him letting them have some say in the matter. St. Louis will have two starters getting ready for today. Hopefully the Bucs’ game doesn’t end in time for them to pull Wainright. No matter who starts for the Pirates today the offense has to beat Cueto. If that doesn’t take place I could start today’s game. I would lean towards holding Cole back for Monday or Wednesday.


If we lose to the Reds, we probably don’t care what the Cardinals do with Wainwright, but likely the Cards would pitch him for quite a few innings this afternoon to get him ready for the opening game of the NLDS on Friday. If we win, the Cards are going to pitch Wainwright as long as they can today because if they beat the D’backs they are in the NLDS without having to play in the playoff game Monday – there isn’t a likely scenario where they would pull him.

Lukas Sutton

He did, reports are Hurdle asked the team about it and gave them a “what do you want to do?” Made it a team decision.


I haven’t heard the lineups yet, but as long as they’re sitting Martin, I’d prefer Sanchez to be in there over Stewie. No Hamilton, so am not too concerned with the Reds running, but Stewie does not hit RHP. Sanchez at least might as he had reverse splits at AAA. I go for as much offense as possible.

Jeff Rhodes

According to Travis Sawchik, the decision has already been made and Cole will start today. Hurdle also said it’s entirely possible Volquez would start the wildcard game on Wednesday rather than Liriano.

After looking at it from all sides, I’m fine with all of that.


Actually,looking at it from all sides, there isn’t a hell of a lot any of us can do but sit back and root for a positive outcome !


I’m comfortable having Worley start the WC game and Volquez starting Game 1 of the NLDS.

As for tomorrow, I simply tell Locke that either he pitches well or he gets traded to the Phillies,where he’ll never sniff another playoff for his career.


In the last 23 or so games the Pirates have been as good as any team in the NL. Winning the division is nice for sure but not essential to playoff success. The MLB playoffs are a complete crap shoot. If starting Cole today drastically increased the odds of making it to the NLDS then fine, but that’s not factually accurate bc the Bucs don’t control their own destiny. If we had won yesterday then things would be different today. But you certainly do not fix one managerial blunder with another…and starting Cole would be another.


I can see Edinson Volquez pitching the WC game. I’m not sure why the quesi-“backlash” against it since he has been probably the Pirates best pitcher the entire second half of this season (maybe with the exception of Liriano). He reminds me of Liriano of a season a year ago in terms of quality and that turn out well for the Pirates.
SF is most likely going to pitch Bumgarner.


I want Worley in the WC game. Although that won’t happen. Worley has probably been our best pitcher besides Liriano since he’s come up. Do we forget his recent 83-85 pitch 8-inning scoreless game? Efficiency and pitching deep into the game would come in really handy in the playoffs.


I guess we will agree to disagree. Edison has like the lowest ERA since the all-star break and has pitch a quality start in the past 10 games compared to Worley’s 5. EV also has pitches 18 scoreless inning pitched streak. EV also pitched a gem in his last start too with a season high 10K.

Lukas Sutton

He also gave up 9 hits in his latest outing and wasnt particularly sharp. Volquez has been the better pitcher lately and has the better stuff. Worley has not been a shut down pitcher apart from that 1 great outing, he has been a guy that will yield 2-3 runs in 6-7 inning the last month.


But he’s not walking anyone. I’d be fine with Volquez, but I take one of Worley/Volquez over Liriano for a one game winner take all right now. Liriano hasn’t had decent control in two weeks (14k/14w last 17 innings).


Not walking anyone is huge and also is my concern with Volquez. Worley might give up hits but he simply doesn’t give away free passes so even when he’s bad, unless the ball is leaving the ballpark, he gives you a great shot of going 7-innings and giving you a chance to win the ball game. A bad Volquez and the game is over after 3 innings. I don’t know. This decision is a tough one and one I think really will be a defining moment for the rest of the seasons (obviously) and maybe Hurdles tenure with the Bucs.


I disagree Tim, Gerrit Cole needs to be given the wrong directions to the stadium today. Hoping a lesser pitcher can get by the Giants or Cardinals makes less sense than hoping they can get by the Reds. But win or lose today they will need Cole more in their next game than this one, whether its a division tie breaker or wild card game


Hurdle made a completely idiotic decision yesterday by not pitching Melancon and if he pitches Cole today he’ll be making a similarly idiotic decision.


The only way you pitch cole is if you already planned on using Worley against the Giants based on his career matchup against them.


The Pirates should not start Cole today. AW is pitching for the Cards against the worst team in baseball. The Pirates should roll the dice, give someone else a shot to see if they can win today’s game and go from there. Losing the WC game means no more bucco baseball…losing today means not winning the division or not winning a chance to have a chance to win the division. I don’t want Jeff Locke anywhere near a WC game and if that’s the option we are left with then forget the division, win the WC game and go beat the Nats.


What about Volquez in the WC game on five days’ rest?


Do you trust Volquez?


Yes. why not? He has arguably been the Pirates best starting pitcher this season. I trusted Cole to start last off season over Burnett last season playoff game because he was the better pitcher at that time. Cole did lose that game, but I honestly do not think Burnett would have done better. Why no trust in ED?


Well, there are a lot of reasons not to trust ED, but I’m OK with EV!


EDiston or EV. whatever. 😀


Just kidding…


Sure, he leads the team in wins, and has the lowest ERA and WHIP in the rotation (except for Worley who hasn’t pitched nearly as many innings), and Volquez has an ERA that is substantially better than GC’s. Is EV a lock? No, but GC isn’t either.


Cole has the best numbers against SFG of the whole staff. The likelihood that we win against Cueto and ARI wins against Wainwright is slim. Both of those things need to happen plus we need to win a tiebreaker Monday in STL. Statistically, not likely going to happen. I say rest Cole and hit the ground running on Wednesday. I’d rather play SFG and WAS.


I think Worley’s career numbers against the Giants are really really good.


How many times has GC pitched against the Giants? I think he has pitched against them once this year?

Lukas Sutton

3 times total i believe, and for sure not more than that. Which is why using career numbers is really stupid for basically the entire Pirates staff. Liriano, Worley, and Volquez clearly will have skewed career numbers and Cole is too young to place value in that SSS.

Ben Swogger

I can see both sides of it. I’m leaning more towards saving Cole. I’m glad it’s not my decision to make.

Eric Scot

In my opinion. The Pirates need to hold Cole back from todays(Sunday) game and used on Monday(if needed) or Wednesday. You have to look at the scenarios which suggest the Pirates could struggle against Cueto. If they lost the game 1-0, would you feel great having used Cole and him not being available on Wednesday? The Cardinals have Wainwright on the mound today and a win for them regardless of what the Pirates do gives them the division. The Pirates have to look at this from the perpective of, go with the best in a guarantee situation and not a maybe situation. Sunday is a maybe whereas Monday or Wednesday is a guarantee situation.


I agree with Tim. First of all, how do you tell the team after they have battled for six months that we are really not going to try too hard to win game no. 162? As a matter of fact, we are going to start someone we took out of the rotation several months ago and who can’t go more than 3 or 4 innings (Cumpton) or we are going to pitch someone on short rest for the first time all season (Locke) when we have one of our best pitchers ready to go in his spot in the rotation but we don’t have enough confidence in the rest of the rotation even to try to win game 162. Maybe CH can do that, but I think that is a tough assignment. What if we don’t win the WC game? How is the decision to give up on the division championship (and arguably to give up on the team) going to look in retrospect? Second question: do we want to have one chance to get into the playoffs or two? This situation is somewhat analogous to a seven game playoff series, would we prefer going into game 6 ahead three games to two games with the ability to win the series by winning either of the last two games, or do we prefer being tied 3-3 with the seventh game being do or die? (Think, maybe, Atlanta, 1992). I am guessing that, on average, the team ahead three games to two wins more often. I well understand that the odds of tying the Cardinals are not good, but I think the team has to try – for a lot of reasons, I don’t think the team can just give it up. Third, how much are our chances of winning the WC game improved by throwing Cole on abnormal days’ rest compared to throwing Volquez on essentially normal days’ rest? Cole has the bigger arm, but Volquez has pitched better this year (3.04 ERA to Cole’s 3.78). The series in St. Louis earlier this month was a pretty big series and felt a lot like the playoffs – if we had won even one game there things might look somewhat different today – both Cole and Volquez pitched there and both went 6.1 innings, but Cole gave up 5 earned runs and Volquez gave up nothing. Its not clear how much, if anything, we may be gaining by starting Cole instead of Volquez in the WC game. On the other hand, it is pretty clear psychologically how much we lose by telling the team we are not really going to try too hard to win game 162. Is that an organization defining moment? Finally, do we want to put everything on our young, developing star in a year which has been an off year for him? If he doesn’t pitch well, he is going to wear that for years. I think you tell the team we are going to play to win, we are going with our regular rotation like we have all year, and we are going to trust and rely upon each other to win or lose just like we have all year. The team has played together, relying on each player to do his part, all year to get where it is now – there’s no reason to change or quit now.


The other advantage of starting Cole today is that if you want him to start the NLDS Friday he can, or he can start game 2 (with Volquez starting game 1) and whether he starts game 1 or 2, you have the option of letting him pitch the potentially deciding game 5 with normal four days’ rest. If Cole starts the WC game he is unavailable for games 1 or 2 of the NLDS and he can pitch only once – total – in the NLDS.


I said “with Volquez starting game 1” – I meant to say “with Liriano starting game 1”

Joe Sweetnich

Isn’t four days rest normal rest?


I completely disagree with Tim. Do not pitch Cole today.


Please do not start cole 162.. it may be a meaningless game sense we don’t control oir destiny


cumpton today,and try to win with him. lets not get crazy here. the reds got cueto and the cards got wainright. move on and set up cole fore monday . if there is no game monday you got cole fore the wild card game.


Cumpton isn’t available due to ” issues with his arm “.


Do not start Cole in game 162!!! They are not playing to get in the playoffs. If the moons aline and the Bucs win and the Cards lose Cole is available for 163, Volquez goes in the Wildcard game and Liriano starts Game 1 of the NLDS. If Cole starts 162 you have to start Locke and save Volquez for the possibility of the Wildcard game. 163 is not a must win not a do or die as the Wildcard game would be and to give the ball to Liriano on 3 days rest after a horrible outing, Locke or Worley in that sitiuation is irresponsible IMO. I know Hurdle likes to say he manages to win the game they are playing and not worrying about tomorrow but the organization needs to think about advancing in the playoffs not game 162.


After 162 games, it is crazy to pitch Cole tomorrow. I would be OK with Volquez on Wednesday, but having Cole ready is paramount….

John Janesko

Cueto is a top 5 pitcher with some motivation. Gerrit Cole is nowhere near as good as him, it’s not likely the Pirates win. Add that to the odds of the Diamondbacks beating Wainwright and I’d say the chances are slim to none. Now with that said, if you pitch Cole then the Wild Card options are Volquez or Liriano on short rest. With that in mind in order to have the highest chance of making a run, Cole has to be available to pitch that game.

James Rogers

NOOOOOOOOOO…do not pitch Cole on Sunday. Going against Cueto, there’s maybe a 50-50 chance of a win and even if they DO win, Arizona would have to beat Wainwright for it to matter.


It’s fvcking crazy to start Cole tomorrow. Please save him for Wednesday…..


Cole should be held out of game 162. Why? Game 162 is essentially a freebie, if the pirates win then great they won a game that has the chance of another game on monday. Now if the cards win you have cole for the wildcard game, if on the other hand the bucs win and the cards lose you have cole for Monday. The bucs win on Monday and they are off for the week and cole is available to start the nlds, if the pirates lose that (163)game then you have liriano for the wildcard. Bottom line is this, holding cole out gives the pirates the best scenario for all the possibilities. Whereas pitching cole tommorow puts them in a compromising position. Sorry tim your analysis is well said just not right.


Of course after writing this the pirates started cole (game in progress as I write) let’s just hope this is not a case of winning the battle (if they even win the battle) only to lose the war. In other words I hope this decision does not bite them on the keister in the playoffs.( or tiebreaker)

William Beckley

The big difference between this and holding back a closer is that it’s not completely in the Pirates control. The reality of the situation is that it’s very unlikely the DBacks can beat Wainwright tomorrow. If it were a situation where a Pirates win meant a tiebreaker for the division, then I’d completely support starting Cole. But as it is, the likely outcome is that even if the Pirates win tomorrow, the Cards do as well behind Wainwright, and now Cole isn’t available for the Wild Card game. My concern isn’t saving Cole for a division tiebreak, it’s that regardless of whether the Pirates win, they won’t get a shot at that tiebreak. You really want to eliminate Cole as an option for the Wild Card game entirely on the hope that both (1) the Pirates can beat Cueto, and (2) Adam Wainwright will lose to one of the worst lineups in the league?


WB — you and the many others below are spot on… Imagine how sick we will all feel if — after a wild season and great second half surge — the Pirates lose the Wildcard game because we don’t halve two top pitchers available? Let Cole rest up for a few days (or, improbably, for tomorrow) and line up the rest of the staff for the playoffs.

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