As good as the Pittsburgh Pirates have been, they may play a road Wild Card playoff game. However, with the return of A.J. Burnett coming on Thursday, they can bolster their chances to play at home in PNC Park. Not only because of Burnett's return, which may not even go well for all we know, but because someone has to go. In order to help a pitching staff that has regressed over the course of the second half of the year, the Pirates must keep J.A. Happ in the starting rotation and put Jeff Locke in the bullpen.
There are doubters of Clint Hurdle out there, but that will probably never be written on here. Hurdle has reinvented baseball culture in Pittsburgh with the teams he has lead in recent years. Ultimately, teams set out to win the World Series and that seems to be a process fans are impatient with. Never mind the fact that fans complain the Pirates "do not spend enough" even though they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had baseball's largest payroll entering 2015 compared to the Pirates who were 25th.
People nitpick at what Hurdle is doing but it's nonsensical. The team is going to win over 90 games once again in 2015 and make the postseason. This is the ultimate decision that can help them, not Hurdle occasionally shuffling the lineups around because he likes to match up accordingly against righties and lefties.
The Pirates five starters need to be Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett. Happ has proven over his last three starts (3-0, 0.49 ERA) that he is more worthy than Locke. Now the Pirates do have a doubleheader coming against the Cubs and Clint Hurdle has announced that Locke will be in that starting six. When the rotation goes back down to five starters, Locke has to be the odd man out.
Locke has never been consistent in his career although he had a great first half of the year in 2013 that earned him an All-Star Game appearance. However, he faded in the second half and proved that he is good at being consistently inconsistent for the Pirates. They cannot afford inconsistency right now, especially not down the stretch. The Chicago Cubs caught fire about five or six weeks ago and all of a sudden they may be playing a home Wild Card game this year, not just being the last team in.
The Pittsburgh Pirates this year are similar to recent teams in that they can win at home, and very effectively. The Pirates need to play in the home Wild Card game. A game at Wrigley Field, especially with the wind factor that could play into that game, would favor the Cubs. They're used to playing those games with the wind. The Pirates have played with it before, but the Cubs are doing it essentially every day.
It appears that the likely matchup will be Jake Arrieta - Gerrit Cole. That matchup could turn into a slugfest, which heavily favors the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are eighth in the majors in home runs, whereas the Pirates are in the back of the line at 21st. That's why this button must be pushed once and for all. This is no disrespect to Locke, but Happ is the guy now and he is best for the Pirates down the stretch and into the postseason.
The Pirates can win the World Series, they have the right build to the team. They added bench depth and bolstered their already great bullpen by trading for Joakim Soria. The Pirates have taken care of business against the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers this year and if they escape the Wild Card game they must get past their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the NLDS.
While that is a tall task, the Pirates have played 17 games against the Cardinals and are 9-8 against them so the NLDS would not have a heavy favorite. But the Cardinals have had the clutch factor in the playoffs over the past decade or so.
Regardless, the Pirates need to play at PNC Park because it favors them, no matter who they play so that one game would at least give them some sort of advantage. Most remember the "CUETO" chants that rattled Johnny Cueto before Russell Martin took him deep in the 2013 Wild Card game. That is the type of moment that shows how much a game at PNC Park can help, unlike last year against the San Francisco Giants.