It’s not a surprise now, but it would have been a week ago: the Pirates will go to Gerrit Cole over A.J. Burnett in Wednesday’s decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals.
Burnett has won 26 games with a 3.49 ERA in his two seasons with the Pirates, but that’s all been undone by one hideous inning in the Game 1 loss. After starting off with a pair of scoreless frames, Burnett retired none of the seven hitters he faced in the third and all came around to scored in the 9-1 loss.
Cole, the first overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft, followed that up with six innings of one-run ball in a Game 2 victory.
If Burnett’s Game 1 struggles were the end of it, the Pirates likely would have given him the ball again. However, the career 6.37 postseason ERA weighs heavily here. Mental toughness has always been a question mark with Burnett, and the fact is that the Pirates have more faith in the rookie right now.
Dating back to the regular season, Cole has won five straight starts. When the Pirates score three runs, they’re 19-1 with Cole on the mound.
Clayton Kershaw has never started on three days’ rest. Now the Dodgers are asking him to do just that in Monday’s Game 4 against the Braves. Rather than trust Ricky Nolasco to close out the series, they’re going to bank on their ace who is about to win his second Cy Young Award.
In a vacuum, I’m down with that. I like the Dodgers’ chances a little better tonight with Kershaw going. But, then, I liked their chances just fine anyway.
One big complication here: Kershaw threw 126 pitches over seven innings in his Game 1 victory. That’s his second highest total ever as a pro. It wasn’t the most strenuous of 126-pitch outings — the Dodgers won 6-1 — but I’d feel better about things if he had thrown 100-110 pitches instead.
All things considered, this might be the most fatigued start of Kershaw’s life. He’s already thrown 243 innings this year, and now he’s on three days’ rest after an unusually lengthy outing. And with that fatigue has to come an increased risk of injury. Whether that increase is one percent, 10 percent or 100 percent, I won’t claim to know, but it’s there. The safer play would be to let Kershaw pitch on extra rest in a possible Game 5.
By making the switch mere hours before the game, the Dodgers are also showing just how little faith they have in Nolasco. And that’s dangerous with the hope of two potential seven-game series coming up. They’re going to need Nolasco if they intend to win the World Series. Now, if he ever does get the chance to start in the NLDS, it’ll come nearly three weeks after his last start on Sept. 25.
There are also question marks about Hyun-Jin Ryu’s health that could make Nolasco doubly important.
One plus for the Dodgers here is that moving up Kershaw doesn’t tax the rotation further. That Zack Greinke can start Game 5 on normal rest was likely a factor in the choice. It’s not like they need multiple guys to start on short rest.
Still, I don’t like it. With Atlanta starting Freddy Garcia, I think the Dodgers would have won tonight with Nolasco, leaving them much better set up for the NLCS. They just don’t gain enough in making the switch to justify the risk.
In some ways, the Cardinals are better off than most. They don’t lose much at first base with Matt Adams filling in for Allen Craig, and they’re still fine in the ninth since Trevor Rosenthal replaced the sore-shouldered Edward Mujica in the closer’s role. But the truth is that both injuries played huge roles in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Pirates.
With Adams filling in for Craig, here’s the Cardinals’ current bench: Adron Chambers, Tony Cruz, Daniel Descalso/Pete Kozma, Shane Robinson and Kolten Wong. There isn’t even one decent pinch-hitting option there. Wong, a rookie second baseman, is the talent in the bunch, but he hit just .153 in 59 at-bats after arriving in the majors. The Cardinals are down enough on him that he was left on the bench while both Kozma and Descalso hit against Jason Grilli in the ninth today.
Chambers is in the roster spot that would have gone to Craig. He went 4-for-26 in the majors this year.
And, of course, while Adams is probably a better hitter than Craig against righties, he was a far lesser option today against Francisco Liriano. He’s also the weaker defender, which played a role in Kozma’s throwing error in the two-run first inning today.
As for Mujica, well, he’s on the roster and available, but the Cardinals don’t trust him right now. That’s why Rosenthal wasn’t out there in a tie game in the eighth when the Pirates scored two runs today. That almost certainly would have been Rosenthal’s assignment a few weeks ago. Since he’s now the closer, he was held in reserve.
The Cardinals are also going it without Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jason Motte and Rafael Furcal, but those are injuries from several months ago. Had they known they’d be without Craig, they probably would have brought in some bench help prior to Aug. 31.