NL Wild Card Game: Facing Giants, can Pirates repeat last year's magic?
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
A year ago, in their first postseason game in 20 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park in front of 40,487 black-clad Pirates fans in one of the most electric game atmospheres in recent memory. It's rare to see a quality major leaguer rattled by an opposing home crowd, but those Pirates fans got to Reds ace Johnny Cueto — who had struggled through an injury-plagued season — with a taunting chant in the second inning after the Pirates scored the game's first run. Meanwhile, the Pirates' ace, the rejuvenated Francisco Liriano, dominated Cincinnati's powerful lineup, and the Bucs cruised to a 6-2 win and the Division Series.
Pittsburgh is obviously hoping history will repeat itself Wednesday night as it again hosts the NL Wild Card Game, but a Pirates victory is unlikely to come as easily this time. To begin with, the opposing starter isn't likely to rattle easily. Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' 25-year-old lefty, has emerged as a proper ace in a rotation that has lost Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to poor performance and injury. Since the All-Star break, he has gone 8-3 with a 2.29 ERA. 0.86 WHIP and 8.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with more than a strikeout per inning and just 11 walks in 13 starts. Of those 13 starts, 11 have been quality, and two were shutouts in which he allowed three hits, one walk and 23 strikeouts.
Despite his youth, Bumgarner already has six postseason starts and one scoreless relief appearance under his belt, having been a member of the Giants' rotation in their championship seasons of 2010 and 2012. Bumgarner's overall postseason results are middling (3-2, 4.01 ERA in those six starts), but he has matured significantly since his last postseason appearance at the age of 23, and he hasn't allowed a run in 15 World Series innings, suggesting he's at his best when the pressure is highest. The Wild Card Game will be his first time he has appeared in a game with his team facing elimination in the postseason.
Meanwhile, this year's salvaged Pirates starter, Edinson Volquez, has pitched surprisingly well of late. But he has not dominated at home the way Liriano did a year ago (going 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts) and is clearly not the team's ace, as Liriano was a year ago.
Like Liriano, Volquez is a pitcher who was a highly regarded prospect and an All-Star in his early twenties, had his career derailed by Tommy John surgery, and spent years as a frustrating, inconsistent and control-challenged disappointment. He was signed off the scrap heap by the Pirates, and under pitching coach Ray Searage, Volquez harnessed his control (his 3.3 walks per nine innings this year were a career low) and delivered his best season since before his surgery. But Volquez's turnaround has come with its fair share of luck on balls in play (.269 BABIP) and his lowest strikeout rate since his age-22 season.
Still, Volquez was outstanding in his final 10 starts of the regular season, going 5-0 with a 1.36 ERA and a comparatively robust 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Eight of those 10 starts were quality, and he only missed making it 10 of 10 by a total of two outs. What's more, heading into the Wild Card Game, Volquez hasn't allowed a run in 18 innings.
Of course, as we saw in the AL Wild Card Game last night, the starting pitchers are not always the determining factor in a game. Indeed, the last and only time Bumgarner faced the Pirates this season, he gave up five runs in four innings. Four of those runs came in the first inning, which has been Bumgarner's trouble spot all season: Teams are hitting .320/.378/.547 against him in the first inning this season but just .224/.262/.339 thereafter. Speaking of which, this is as good a place as any to point out that Bumgarner has out-hit his own opposition this season. Overall, batters have hit .240/.281/.372 against the Giants' ace. Bumgarner, meanwhile, has hit .258/.286/.470 with four home runs and 15 RBI in 78 plate appearances, which effectively extends the Giants' lineup an extra spot when he’s on the mound.
That could be crucial in this game, as the team's four and five hitters, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, finished the season ice cold. San Francisco will also be playing without centerfielder Angel Pagan, who is out for the year following back surgery, as well as leftfielder Michael Morse, out due to an oblique strain. Gregor Blanco has excelled in Pagan's stead, starting the final 30 games of the season and hitting .282/.355/.482 over that stretch. The Morse injury, however, leaves the Giants overextended in left, where they are likely to start journeyman first baseman Travis Ishikawa tonight.
Ishikawa, who opened the season as the Pirates' first baseman, not only finished the season cold at the plate (just three singles in his last 20 at-bats), but has also started a total of three major league games in the outfield in his career. He did make 13 more appearances in the outfield in the minors this year, but the Giants would seem to be setting themselves up for disaster by starting so inexperienced a leftfielder in an elimination game.
The Pirates, who took four of six from the Giants during the regular season, have some injury concerns of their own. Most significantly, catcher Russell Martin is still dealing with the sore left adductor magnus muscle in his groin that has plagued him all season (it is not, as previously believed, a hamstring issue). That won't be enough to keep Martin out of the lineup, but it bears watching, particularly as backup Chris Stewart is ailing as well, having been hit on the left wrist by a backswing on Sunday (his x-rays were negative). As a result of those injuries, the Pirates have included third-string catcher Tony Sanchez on their wild-card roster.
While the Pirates finished the regular season on a remarkable 17-6 run, their final weekend could be cause for concern. Needing wins against the faded Reds on the final two days of the season to have a chance at catching the Cardinals for the NL Central title, the Pirates came up short both times. They lost on a walk-off grand slam by Ramon Santiago on Saturday, then failed to push across more than one run against the admittedly outstanding duo of Cueto and Aroldis Chapman on Sunday. The loser in the latter game was ace setup man Tony Watson, who had not been charged with a run since mid-August but did allow seven of his 11 inherited runners to score in the interim.
Those results don’t bode well for the Pirates in yet another must-win game, but both of those losses came on the road in what was a radically different atmosphere from what we will see tonight in Pittsburgh. And being in the Steel City should be a boon and a massive factor for the Pirates, who were seven games below .500 on the road this year but 51-30 (.630) at home