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Pirates

Inside the decision: Pirates chose their own adventure

| Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, 12:54 p.m.
Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Reds in the second inning Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Cincinnati.
USA Today Sports
Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Reds in the second inning Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Cincinnati.
Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) talks with catcher Chris Stewart in the first inning Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Cincinnati.
Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) talks with catcher Chris Stewart in the first inning Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — After Saturday's loss and before the St. Louis Cardinals took the field in Arizona later that evening, the Pirates clubhouse door was closed for an unusual length of time. Almost 30 minutes passed before reporters were permitted to enter. The delay was caused as Clint Hurdle met with what he calls the club's “leadership council” to discuss the most important decision of the season.

Inside the cramped, spartan and windowless visiting manager's office in the depths of Great American Ball Park, the Pirates manager summoned Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Clint Barmes, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano. He wanted their opinions on a decision that will influence the Pirates' fortunes in October.

He presented two choices:

• Plan A: Pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday and give the Pirates their best shot to keep its slim hopes alive for a Central Division crown.

• Plan B: A tactical retreat. Save Cole, who has been so good in September and on big stages in his young career, whose strikeout rate, walk rate, and fielding-independent-pitching metrics are all superior to that of Edinson Volquez, for a likely wild-card game Wednesday versus Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants.

There was no split decision. All five of the players were in agreement. They adamantly advocated Plan A.

“I gave them the options first. I didn't want to lead the witness. I wanted to read the crowd,” Hurdle said. “To a man, there was no pause, there was no doubt. There was no ‘Let me figure this out ... How we are best suited?' It was ‘Let's win the game.' We have a chance to win the division.' To play this long and to go theoretical? That's not in a lot of players' DNA.”

While Cole pitched brilliantly Sunday, allowing just one run in seven innings while matching a career-best with 12 strikeouts, he likely is unavailable for Wednesday's game. The Pirates' loss Sunday eliminated them from contention for a division title. Volquez likely will start Wednesday for the Pirates.

Cole said he did not lobby to start or be held back.

“I was approached with the plan before I even thought about saying anything,” Cole said.

Barmes was part of the council and had no regrets about the decision.

“You have a chance to win the division. You're that close. ... I wouldn't have changed my opinion. That's the way I would have attacked it.”

Hurdle regularly meets with the leadership council. He also meets daily with general manager Neal Huntington and the Pirates' quantitative analysts.

“The (players) didn't make the decision. I wanted their input,” Hurdle said. “There's been many times where we haven't (agreed). But I think it's important for (players) to have ownership.”

Still, while the Pirates have employed many data-based practices, the most apparent being the defensive shifts, Sunday's decision was rooted in emotion. The Pirates entered Sunday with a 12.5 percent chance of winning the division, according to a computer simulation by BaseballProspectus.com.

“This is not about theory. This is not about analytics. The only analytics that come into play in this decision are human analytics,” Hurdle said. “There was no way we are going to walk away (from a potential division title) after 161 games of grit and fight and battle. We're trying to make history here.”

Still, was there a Plan C discussed? Hurdle was asked about beginning the game with his best relief pitchers to save Cole and Volquez. Former Pirates manager Jim Leyland started Game 6 of the 1990 NLCS with reliever Ted Power.

“Absolutely not. Now why would you create something these men have never been a part of?” Hurdle said of using relievers early.

Hurdle noted that baseball isn't predictable. He cited that in 2007 the San Diego Padres saved ace Jake Peavy for a tiebreaker game. Hurdle had no other option than Josh Fogg and his 5.11 ERA. The Rockies won and eventually advanced to the World Series. And there's no doubt the decision was made easier Sunday knowing Volquez, who has won 13 games, is in reserve.

“I got some great advice from an old-time mentor of mine,” Hurdle said. “‘There are going to be some tough decisions you have to make, and sometimes you need to decide on which one is going to allow you to sleep.' ”

How did Hurdle sleep Saturday night?

“Like a baby,” he said.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.comor via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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