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Kovacevic: Toss out wild card and think big

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers to the plate during the fourth inning against the Brewers on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, at PNC Park.

It's amazing to think that anything could still go cataclysmically wrong for these Pirates, now counting down to the Holy Grail of 82 and calculating magic numbers and printing playoff tickets and teaching Marlon Byrd the Zoltan and all that other happy stuff.

But the cold truth is that there remain two worst-case scenarios for how this summer ends:

1. Ultra-mega-fantasmagorically-Epic Collapse III

Not going to happen.

2. Wild card

Sounds funny, but the latter might be the absolute pits.

Not to be that guy, but here's a rather depressing refresher on the system Major League Baseball implemented last year to add a second wild-card team: It's a one-game playoff two days after the regular season at the site of the wild-card team with the better record. Win, and you earn a best-of-five with the owner of the league's best record. Lose, and you're brushing up on all the “Breaking Bad” you've missed.

It's just like the NFL: One and done.

In the old format, of course, a wild card carried real weight, immediately moving into that Division Series and, realistically, having as good a chance as anyone to go all the way. There were five wild-card World Series champs in 17 years of the old format.

Now?

Well, let's just say the Pirates would be wise to cull at least a couple Ws from the coming weekend against the Cardinals, whom they trail by a game after laying an egg against Yovani Gallardo and the Brewers, 4-0, on Thursday night at PNC Park.

And they know it, too.

As Tony Watson was saying beforehand: “It's as simple as this: Do you want sudden death, or do you want five games? It's baseball. Anything can happen in a single game.”

You bet.

Start with this: Who would start?

Makes for a fun debate now, but it'll also be the biggest personnel decision the Pirates will have made in two decades. It'll be daunting, too: Francisco Liriano would have been a no-brainer a month ago, but all it takes is one bad day, and two of his past seven starts have seen him tagged for 10 and five runs. A.J. Burnett's the big-game guy in theory, but his reality has been a rollercoaster for a while. Charlie Morton's the most consistent of late, but — and I say this with much love for Charlie — do you see the franchise putting its once-in-a-generation chance in Morton's hand?

Here's another variable: What if they face a lefty?

Numbers can deceive, but the Pirates are a pedestrian 14-12 when a lefty starts despite a .744 OPS — on-base plus slugging percentage — against lefties that ranks No. 1 in the National League. Crunch that all you wish, but the bottom line is that a lefty reduces Pedro Alvarez to a .193-hitting K machine, it might send Neil Walker to the bench, and it even costs right-handed Russell Martin 45 points off his average.

It's not the ideal lineup.

Then there's the fatigue.

The Cardinals know it best. They were the only wild card in the final year of the old format, 2011, and then went on to win the World Series. Last fall, they were the lower-seeded wild card under the new format, then won that game in Atlanta, had a day off, took the Nationals in five, then ran out of steam and lost in seven to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

Think it might have been different had St. Louis not had to expend Kyle Lohse, their ace at the time, plus their five best relievers to get past the Braves?

Here's one more, though it's more abstract: Imagine going through all this — not just the Pirates, but the city and their fans, all the highs and lows and all the passion invested — then seeing them reduced to a second wild-card slot that puts the single game in St. Louis or Cincinnati.

Yeah, imagine making the playoffs but not seeing a single playoff game at PNC Park.

Simple solution to all this, of course, is to win the Central.

Which, by the way, comes with one other not-so-fringe benefit.

“You get to be a division champion. You get to hang a flag,” Gaby Sanchez said. “We're not playing for the wild card. I mean, yeah, making the playoffs would be great. But that isn't how we're thinking about it, and I'm sure it isn't how St. Louis is thinking about it. We want to win this, and we feel like with the team we've got in here, with our pitching, we should do it.”

Liriano gets first crack at making that difference Friday night.

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