Hurdle's decision to go with Cole the right one
Despite Burnett's contributions, Bucs need rookie in win-or-go-home Game 5
PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle is doing what he has to do. That doesn't mean he likes doing it.
Gerrit Cole will start for the Pirates in Wednesday's deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series (8 p.m. ET on TBS) -- not A.J. Burnett. It's the only decision Hurdle could have made after seeing Michael Wacha -- aka Michael Vander Wacha -- shut down the scheduled civic celebration at PNC Park and along the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
But there's a reason they call decisions like this no-brainers, not no-hearters.
The Pirates have been a tight corps of "men," as Hurdle always takes pains to call his players, since leaving Florida. Hurdle hated telling Burnett, the pitching staff's leader, that he was being skipped for the 23-year-old Cole, even if everyone knows that Cole is Pittsburgh's version of Wacha. Hurdle delivered that news after Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal held the Bucs to one hit in a 2-1 victory, evening the NLDS at two games apiece.
"It's a difficult decision, because [Burnett] has meant so much, we've asked so much of him while he's been here," Hurdle said. "… A.J. wants the ball every day he's scheduled to pitch. That's one of the things that's gotten him to this point in his career and having the success that he's had. You want to treat men professionally. Sometimes we don't agree on things. We have to find a way to get this together to give our team the opportunity to win in all aspects."
Burnett lasted only two-plus innings in the series opener at Busch Stadium, where he was also pounded on Sept. 6 and Aug. 15. Hurdle admitted he wasn't willing to give his Opening Day starter another start in St. Louis.
"It has been a very challenging park for him," Hurdle said. "If this was any other venue, he would have gotten the ball. But for me in this venue, this game, Cole is going to be our guy."
Pirates under pressure
|10/1/2013||NLWC 1||Cin.||6-2 W|
|10/14/1992||NLCS 7||Atl.||3-2 L|
|10/17/1991||NLCS 7||Atl.||4-0 L|
|10/17/1979||WS 7||Bal.||4-1 W|
|10/11/1972||NLCS 5||Cin.||4-3 L|
|10/17/1971||WS 7||Bal.||2-1 W|
|10/13/1960||WS 7||NYY||10-9 W|
|10/15/1925||WS 7||Was.||9-7 W|
|10/16/1909||WS 7||Det.||8-0 W|
He had to be. It's been clear since Cole shut down the Cardinals in Game 2 -- two hits, one run (on a Yadier Molina homer) in six highly poised innings -- that he would be the smart pick to start a deciding fifth game. And the Pirates have won Cole's past six starts.
For what it's worth, this would have been a really difficult call a year ago, but the latest update to the playoff format added a travel day between Game 4 and Game 5, which means Cole will be on normal rest when he faces Adam Wainwright, who buried the Bucs in Game 1.
Pittsburgh had hoped to avoid a return trip to St. Louis -- "I don't want to have to take another road trip," Jason Grilli said before the game -- but the home team was dismantled by Wacha, who didn't seem to mind his role as a baseball buzzkill.
"We're the new team," Andrew McCutchen had proclaimed Sunday after the Pirates' 5-3 win in Game 3. "The Rays, the Oakland A's have been here. I guess you can say we're fresh meat. Everybody wants a piece, wants to see what the Pirates are all about, and it gets me excited."
While the Cards' image is as old school as it gets, they've got their own set of analysts and a scouting department that about 29 other organizations would like to have. Wacha, who like Cole in Game 2 was starting his first postseason game, was the perfect antidote to the Bucs' cheekiness.
Hurdle knew it was going to be an uphill fight from the start.
"It didn't look like a day where you were able to work walks, because he just kept pounding the zone with all his pitches," he said. "We weren't able to get anybody on and get any motion created. That is some kind of postseason outing for a young man in his first postseason game."
Wacha was within five outs of a no-hitter when Pedro Alvarez blasted a 438-foot home run on a 93-mph fastball. It was only the second hit off Wacha in his last 16 innings, as he had gotten within one out of a no-hitter against Washington on Sept. 24.
Alvarez was dressed and gone by the time reporters were allowed into the clubhouse. Burnett and Cole also made quick exits.
Alvarez had been among the Pirates singing the praises of the 36-year-old Burnett, the Yankees castoff who won 16 games in 2012 before going 10-11 this season, when he actually lowered his ERA (to 3.30 from 3.51 last season).
"We feed off him," Alvarez said late in the season.
The Bucs will surely be feeling Burnett's pain as they head back to Busch Stadium. He'll be a free agent after the season, so it's possible he's pitched his last game for Pittsburgh, if not the last of his career. Burnett will get job offers, but he has said he might retire.
But they understand why Cole is getting the ball. Second baseman Neil Walker said the Pirates do take some comfort in knowing their Wacha will be on the mound in the game they have to win.
"I think it's obviously no fun to go through a buzz saw like that and see a guy do what he did to us today," Walker said. "But we got kind of an ace in the hole ourselves. We hope [Cole] is as good as he was last time."
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.