At 10:21 p.m. ET on Friday, this tweet appeared in my feed:
Baseball nirvana RT @harrypav: Reds/Bucs? tied. O's/Rays? tied. Rangers/Royals? tied.
— Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) September 21, 2013
It reminded me of a piece that Jerry Crasnick wrote a few weeks back in which he argued that September -- and not October -- is the best month for baseball. We saw why on Friday night.
But as exciting as the Rays-Orioles and Rangers-Royals games were, it was the Pirates-Reds game that really captured my attention. The Bucs led 5-2 after eight innings thanks to dominant pitching from Francisco Liriano, but even though he had thrown just 94 pitches, manager Clint Hurdle decided to remove him in favor of Mark Melancon for the ninth.
This decision was particularly vexing because the Reds had two left-handed hitters due up (Joey Votto and Jay Bruce), and Liriano absolutely dominates lefties. Entering Friday, lefties had a .319 OPS against Liriano -- yes, that's OPS -- which would be the second-lowest mark in MLB history for a pitcher who made at least 20 starts.
The Reds, as you are probably aware, have a lineup anchored by lefties, as Votto, Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo are arguably their three best position players, and Liriano shut them all down tonight. The trio was 0-for-9 with a walk against Liriano on Friday, and when those guys are shut down the Reds have a hard time scoring because the rest of lineup is otherwise filled with OBP sinkholes.
Nonetheless, Hurdle removed Liriano despite the matchup advantages, Liriano's modest pitch count, and the fact that he hadn't allow a runner past first base in innings six through eight. It was a decision that would haunt him.
To be fair, Melancon retired the two lefties he faced, but he wasn't sharp and neither was the Pirates' defense. With two outs and a man on first, shortstop Jordy Mercer made an awful throwing error that extended the inning and allowed a run to score. And then, after a Zack Cozart single to put runners on the corners, pinch-runner Billy Hamilton stole second base. That set the stage for Devin Mesoraco, who fouled off a number of breaking balls with two strikes -- Melancon's stuff looked flat -- before hitting a sharp one-hopper to Pedro Alvarez at third. Alvarez couldn't handle it, and even though the ball barely trickled to the outfield, Hamilton was able to score from second to tie the game. (This just in -- he's fast.)
For the record, I first-guessed the decision to remove Liriano when the inning began, and I still don't understand it.
An inning later, Votto hit an opposite-field homer off of right-hander Kyle Farnsworth, and Aroldis Chapman closed it out to give the Reds a 6-5 victory.
The good news for the Pirates is that they are still all but assured a playoff spot, but they are now tied with the Reds, two games behind the Cardinals, who won again. The Reds and Bucs play five more times in the regular season, and if I were a betting man I'd guess the Cardinals will end up holding on to the division lead as Pittsburgh and Cincy will beat each other up over the next week.
Liriano looms large
The real silver lining for the Bucs is Liriano, who is lined up to pitch a wild-card game and is pretty much Reds kryptonite. In fact, if a Reds-Pirates wild-card game happens and Liriano is on the hill, Cincy skipper Dusty Baker needs to bench Choo and possibly Bruce as well.
Choo is second in the NL with a .423 OBP, but he has a .207/.345/.243 slash line versus southpaws, which is fueled by 13 hit by pitches. (Liriano hasn't even hit a batter all season, so Choo shouldn't expect that to help him.) Bruce maintains his power against southpaws (.454 slugging) but has a sub-.300 OBP.
Between Chris Heisey and Billy Hamilton, the Reds have a couple of good options who would have a platoon advantage against Liriano, and it's pretty clear that Choo has no shot against him. Dusty Baker does not strike me as the kind of manager to make that kind of call, but it would be the right one.
But that's probably a debate for another day, as a lot is going to happen between now and Oct. 1. Let's just enjoy September.