It's anyone's guess what Clint Hurdle's plans are for Gerrit Cole, though the Pirates manager has good reason to start the right-hander in game No. 162 for Pittsburgh.
Faced with the potential to finish in a tie with St. Louis and force an extra contest to determine the NL Central champion, the Pirates need to bring their best Sunday against nemesis Johnny Cueto and the Cincinnati Reds.Pittsburgh (88-73) briefly put its division title hopes in serious jeopardy with Saturday's 10-6 loss to the Reds (75-86) -- only its fourth in 17 games -- before the first-place Cardinals later fell 5-2 at Arizona to return their advantage to one game.Todd Frazier had a tying two-run homer in the seventh inning for Cincinnati and Ramon Santiago hit a grand slam in the 10th."Wonderfully crazy, like the season," Hurdle told MLB's official website about Saturday's loss. "It just goes to show you -- teams are always going to play and compete."No matter what the Pirates do Sunday, they'll have to wait a few hours to see how things shake out after St. Louis plays. If the teams end up tied, the Pirates and Cardinals will play Monday at Busch Stadium to determine the division champion.Pittsburgh will either host San Francisco in a wild-card game Tuesday or open the division series at the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.The Pirates probably couldn't ask for a better arm to send out Sunday than the streaking Cole (11-5, 3.78 ERA), who has won each of his last four starts while allowing 10 earned runs over 26 innings with 29 strikeouts and three walks.He went seven innings at Atlanta on Tuesday, allowing four hits in a 3-2 victory.Cole has spent a good amount of time on the disabled list this year -- a trio of 15-day stints for shoulder and back ailments -- but Pittsburgh has played well when he takes the mound, going 11-2 over his previous 13 starts. He has faced Cincinnati only once in his career, allowing five runs and nine hits in a 7-5 defeat April 15.If Hurdle doesn't save Cole for the potential wild-card game, he'll need to outduel Cueto, who is chasing his 20th win and has dominated Pittsburgh in his career."We'll let you know what we're going to do (Sunday) after tonight plays out," Hurdle told MLB's website when asked who will start.Cueto (19-9, 2.29) is trying to become Cincinnati's first 20-game winner since left-hander Danny Jackson in 1988 and its first right-hander since Sammy Ellis in 1965.The right-hander is 11-3 with a 2.67 ERA over 15 starts since July 8.More importantly, he is 17-4 all-time against the Pirates and has completely owned them again this season with a 4-0 record and 1.89 ERA over five starts, including two complete games. Pittsburgh has batted a minuscule .197 against him in 2014.The Pirates, however, beat Cueto in last season's wild-card game, reaching him for four runs and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings.In his most recent meeting with Pittsburgh, Cueto went eight innings and allowed two runs in a 3-2 road victory Aug. 31. He also worked eight in his previous start, giving up one run and four hits to beat Milwaukee 3-1 on Tuesday."We've still got one more game left," Santiago said. "We want to play the game the right way, and you want to go home with a good feeling."Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin was out of the lineup Saturday with a sore left hamstring and his status for Sunday is unclear.Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton was also sidelined and won't play in the finale because of a concussion sustained Wednesday. Hamilton leads all NL rookies in runs, hits, doubles, stolen bases and RBIs.
Opposing hitters have a .036 ISO in at-bats ending in a changeup from Johnny Cueto this season, which is the lowest rate among qualified pitchers to end at least 50 at-bats with the pitch. Jordy Mercer has a .057 ISO in at-bats ending with a changeup, which is 97 points below the league average among qualified hitters.