Clint Hurdle got the question right out of the blocks at his news conference today, as he surely expected, and had an answer ready.
“Did anybody win the lineup pool?” he responded when asked why he started Sean Rodriguez rather than Pedro Alvarez at first base. Some media members raised their hands. “I like the fact that there are only three of us thinking the same way. That means maybe you watched every inning of every game this year, as I did.”
Alvarez hit 27 home runs this season and has the most raw power of anyone on the team, but made 23 errors and was the worst defensive first baseman in baseball in his first year at the position.
“Late baseball like this, fall baseball, it’s about pitching and defense for me,” Hurdle said.
Rodriguez hit .246 with a .281 on-base percentage this season, but improved after Aug. 1, hitting .333/.385/.485 in 79 plate appearances. He is the superior defender at first base and routinely replaced Alvarez in the late innings this season when the Pirates had a lead.
Joe Maddon, meanwhile, went for offense, putting Kyle Schwarber in right and Kris Bryant in left while starting left-handed hitting Tommy La Stella at third. La Stella has 12 career games, six starts, at third.
“Pedro’s a big bat,” said Josh Harrison, the only Pirate available to the media before tonight’s game, at a news conference. “We know at some point tonight he’s going to be ready to be called upon. But that’s what makes our team so good is we’ve got a guy like Sean coming in, and we’ve got full faith in him as well.”
Alvarez is 2 for 17 with a homer against Arrieta. Rodriguez has never faced Arrieta. Michael Morse is 2 for 9 with a double against Arrieta and Aramis Ramirez, another first-base option, is 2 for 19.
[Alvarez and Ramirez] in particular have had some challenges against this guy,” Hurdle said.
There is no version of this where Hurdle could make a “right” or “wrong” decision. By putting his best defense on the field -- “We're putting our best pitcher on the mound, want to put our best defensive team behind him and find a way to scratch out one more run than the other team,” he said -- he is acknowledging the likelihood of a low-scoring game and taking steps to avoid having an Alvarez error decide it. He is also acknowledging the fact that Arrieta has allowed two homers since June 21, a span of 147 innings. And Alvarez will be available to pinch-hit, either late if the game is close or early if there are men on base and the Pirates fall behind.
But not giving him three plate appearances eliminates the chance that Alvarez could run into one and possibly split what could be a close game wide open. Rodriguez has hit better since August, but in a small sample size, and his body of work indicates that Alvarez is the better offensive option.
Here is the Pirates lineup for tonight's N.L. wild-card game:
Gregory Polanco RF
Josh Harrison 3B
Andrew McCutchen CF
Starling Marte LF
Francisco Cervelli C
Neil Walker 2B
Jordy Mercer SS
Sean Rodriguez 1B
Gerrit Cole RHP
• Pirates going for speed and defense over power potential. Harrison in for Aramis Ramirez. Rodriguez in for Pedro Alvarez.
• Rodriguez, a defensive specialist, was selected to start at first over Alvarez and Michael Morse. Rodriguez is batting .246 with a .281 on-base percentage this season. He is batting .333 in 79 plate appearances since Aug. 1.
Dexter Fowler CF
Kyle Schwarber RF
Kris Bryant LF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Tommy La Stella 3B
Starlin Castro 2B
Miguel Montero C
Addison Russell SS
Jake Arrieta RHP
Behold, the Pirates’ wild-card roster:
Gerrit Cole (starter)
Francisco Liriano (L)
Antonio Bastardo (L)
Tony Watson (L)
Pedro Alvarez (L)
Pedro Florimon (S)
Neil Walker (S)
Gregory Polanco (L)
Travis Snider (L)
There are no real surprises here other than perhaps the omission of lefty Bobby LaFromboise, who might have been useful against Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo or Miguel Montero. Lefties were 3 for 19 with eight strikeouts against him this year, but Jason Heyward also just hit a grand slam against him when he was brought in for a left-on-left matchup.
Others left off: Jeff Locke, Rob Scahill, Vance Worley, Travis Ishikawa, Jaff Decker.
Good morning, happy wild-card day. Check back here throughout the morning for info and analysis on the Pirates’ and Cubs’ wild-card rosters once they are announced, and Stephen J. Nesbitt will chat about it at 2 p.m.
Brady McCollough takes a look at how long the Pirates’ window to contend will stay open. They face decisions this offseason on Neil Walker, Mark Melancon and Pedro Alvarez, but the big one looms a few years off: Trade Andrew McCutchen before free agency to get more than just a draft pick for him, or keep him through the end of his contract, knowing they probably won’t be able to re-sign him?
The history of the wild-card game, from a 1993 vote to a 2009 committee to PNC Park.
From Nesbitt, a fun dive into the departure of the Pirates’ mascot for the team they oppose tonight.
Pirates notebook: Cole flies under the radar before his start.
Cubs notebook: Maddon still focuses on fun.
Gene Collier writes about Maddon’s “Go out and play,” mentality, with an assist from the Rolling Stones.
Over at Grantlant, Jonah Keri previews tonight’s game.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale writes that Cole’s confidence matches him up well against Jake Arrieta.
From the Chicago Tribune: Cubs veterans talk about keeping it simple.
Neil Walker addressed reporters during today’s clubhouse availability. Here are some of the highlights.
On Gerrit Cole:
"I like that nobody is talking about him. Let be honest, all we've heard all week is about their starter. We've got a prettty good one."
On Jake Arrieta:
"You've got to assume he's going to be as good as advertised. Having said that, we have to do a good job of taking advantage of situations. We have to be really smart about how we're going about our at-bats, knowing the situations and what he's trying to do. ... He's different with every guy. That's the one thing that makes him good — he doesn't have a ton of patterns. But you do know his best pitch is his slider/cutter. Knowing that, you kind of work off of that. There are some things I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you."
On adjusting to Arrieta vs. sticking with your approach:
“The more you understand what you do best as an individual and then you kind of see how he’s pitched you over the past starts. You try to kind of take that information, put it all together and try to grab an approach from there.
”It usually doesn’t differ from a lot of pitchers. Guys tend to work away in certain situations and in[side] in certain situations. Their put-away pitches are typically breaking balls and curveballs or sliders. You try not to change too much to go against something you may do well.“
”You got a guy that’s four-pitch mix guy with four plus pitches. You have to be opportunistic when the time comes.“
On batters being able to adjust to different pitchers:
”For this level, to be successful and hang around here, that’s the one thing that you have to be good at is making adjustments on the fly, making adjustments pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat. If you’re not able to do that, you’re kind of weeded out. We know what we’re capable of doing individually and as a group. It’s just a matter of scoring those runs when you have an opportunity.“
On out-of-the-ordinary circumstances in the wild-card game:
”I think more from a pitching standpoint, these starters are not going to come out and pace themselves. They’re going to go as hard as they can and if for some reason something happens, you know you have all hands on deck in the bullpen.“
On how the defense will handle possibly cutting off a run vs. playing for an out:
”That kind of depends on who’s hitting, who’s running. … We expect a tight game tomorrow so we expect every run to be important. You get a situation in the first inning with a man on third and one out, I’m expecting probably both sides to be infield in.
“You understand who’s on the mound, is he a ground-ball guy, is he a fly-ball guy. Is the guy hitting a speed guy, what does he do well?”
On getting to Arrieta early:
“The guys at the top, they have to be stubborn with their approach. If they see he’s being a little erratic, not to get too aggressive in hitter’s counts. Maybe drop a bunt down here or there. You look at our team, we’ve got some guys that can really run at the top of the order. That’s important in every game for us. If we get guys on, we feel like we can wreak some havoc on the starting pitcher or at least make him think we’ll be on the run and on the move and maybe hit and run here and there. When you can get that mentality on the starting pitcher, you can get more fastballs as hitters.”
Arrieta said he is comfortable game-planning against the Pirates, does it go both ways?
“We understand what he’s going to do, we understand what makes him good, we understand where he likes to get his outs, what pitches he likes to use to get his outs, how he likes to get ahead.
”That’s where the stubborn approach kicks in. You know you’re going to get so few chances, you have to be ready when those come.“
Do you wonder how he reacts if he falls behind early?
”I do know that pitchers tend to settle in a little more when they feel like they are more comfortable, if they maybe get through the order with a lot of first pitch swings or a lot of first-pitch outs. That’s the hope, that you can put some runs on the board early and let your guy kind of settle in.“
What have you seen in Cole’s past four starts?
”His stuff has been similar all year. The thing he does well is he reads hitters well. He’s obviously got an upper 90s fastball that gets on guys and then he’s got a wipeout slider. He knows how he wants to attack guys. His control is typically very good to both sides of the plate and he knows how to put guys away.“