In a few hours, we'll know the answer. Or at least, we'll think we know the answer. But Clint Hurdle is making a heckuva decision with what's probably the most important game of his managerial career. Hurdle has managed in the World Series before, but this is an elimination game. People are going to second-guess everything he does. And what he's doing is starting a rookie over a veteran.
Oh, it's not that mysterious. The rookie was tremendous in his one playoff start, and the veteran was kind of a mess. If an 83-year-old Danish woman who had never seen a game of baseball in her life watched both games, she would pick Cole.
But think of what Hurdle's watched over the last two seasons. For the last two seasons, A.J. Burnett has been pretty danged good. If you go by the ERA+, he hasn't been anything that special. But he's been above average, and in Pirates land, that counts for a helluva lot. When the Pirates had nothing, Burnett came in and provided salvation. In a way, the Pirates' fortune turned with Burnett. He was a risk, and even with the Yankees paying a chunk of his salary, he wasn't cheap. And the risk paid off as well as the Pirates could have hoped.
Burnett's last two months have been a hodgepodge of good and bad; he made five starts this season in which he allowed five earned runs or more, and four of them came after August 1. But he also pitched into the seventh inning in seven of his last eight starts, including three done-run outings. And in the regular season, he held the Cardinals to a .213/.275/.323 line, striking out 37 and walking nine in 34 innings.
On the other hand, Gerrit Cole has a nine-game streak of quality starts going. The last time he allowed more than two runs was August 29. He's getting better. So maybe Hurdle's decision isn't hard at all. I still want you to think about the manager of your favorite team and ask yourself what he'd do. A lot of them would go with the veteran. Joe Maddon would go with Wandy Rodriguez throwing right-handed just to screw with everyone, but a lot of the other managers would go with the veteran.
What interests me about the decision, too, is that the Pirates have both of these guys in the first place. They have two pitchers who have been so good, there's a worthwhile debate over who should start the most important Pirates game in 20 years. And each pitcher is the archetype of a player the Pirates used to fail with over and over and over.
A.J. Burnett is the veteran who stabilizes the staff. Every team wants a couple of those, and by gum, the Pirates wanted a couple, too. Burnett is a long-overdue success story, the happy ending to a tale that included Matt Morris, Kevin Correia, Mark Redman, Erik Bedard, Jonathan Sanchez, Ramon Martinez, and Jeff D'Amico.
Gerrit Cole is the hotshot prospect who actually worked out, the top draft pick who lived up to expectations. He's a long-overdue success story, the happy ending to a tale that included John Van Benschoten, Brad Lincoln, Stetson Allie, Zach Duke, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, /uses inhaler, Bobby Bradley, Clint Johnston, and Daniel Moskos.
Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron is taking a poll about Burnett v. Cole, and the Cole brigade is lapping the field. Hurdle is making a decision that few will second-guess.
"Peter Falsberg. North County Times. Clint, could you explain in great detail why you went with the pitcher who throws 99 m.p.h. and can hit a postage stamp from 180 feet away? Was it the obvious, recent success he's had?"
But sometimes young players can't be trusted. And if there's a manager who knows that, it's Clint Hurdle.
There are managers who wouldn't trust the rookie. Hurdle isn't one of them. It's a mild surprise. And if Cole gets shelled, let the second-guessing begin.
And if Cole does well, let the statue-building begin. They can melt down that one of the guy with the tobacco card if they need to. Sure, he was an okay shortstop or whatever, but if Gerrit Cole can propel the Pirates past the Cards, drastic measures will need to be taken. And Clint Hurdle will look like a genius.
That's not a sentence I expected to type before the season began.