Sometimes we baseball writers forget that "Pirates make the playoffs" should actually be written "PIRATES MAKE THE PLAYOFFS!" with, like, streamers and balloons and firework emojis surrounding the words. Pittsburgh had a competitive stint in 2013's Wild Card game and NLDS, but it wasn't like they were building a dynasty or anything. Last year's two-decade drought-halting playoff run was a feel-good story, Andrew McCutchen the layman's MVP. But to make the playoffs again, in 2014? Two years in a row of October baseball in Pittsburgh? That's the real story. Somebody bust out the streamers.
But while Pittsburgh is frenzying up to host another Wild Card game, the steady San Francisco Giants await. Bruce Bochy's even-keeled club has made even-year magic of late, winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012. (Perhaps Pirates fans could avoid remembering what year it is, at least for tonight?) After an injury-plagued 2013 and up-and-down regular season, the Giants look to bust into the playoffs tonight. Pittsburgh and San Francisco finished the regular season even at 88-74 -- the Giants, for one night at least, will try to make things uneven.
Let's look at one key move each team made to set themselves up for this playoff run.
Pittsburgh Pirates - Edinson Volquez
Edinson Volquez will start tonight's Wild Card game for the Pirates, as a part of Clint Hurdle's annual Bring a Pitcher Off the Scrap Heap To Start the Biggest Game of the Season Charity Pro-Am. After journeyman Francisco Liriano renaissanced his way past Cincinnati in 2013's Wild Card game, Hurdle tabbed Volquez to start tonight.
Volquez, 31 years old and a former All-Star, signed a one year, $5 million deal in the off-season. Despite the inherent low risk of sliding Volquez and his $5 million into the back end of the rotation, the Pirates still caught flak for the signing. And rightfully so: the former Reds ace had spent three straight erstwhile years tossing up 5+ ERA's, hopping planes from Cincinnati to San Diego to Los Angeles, his last meaningful start a blur of ugliness in the 2010 NLDS.
But Pittsburgh stuck with Volquez, who ended up leading the team with 32 starts. After laboring through the first half with the rest of the team, Volquez scorched through the second: since June 23, in 17 starts, Volquez is 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA. He was even better as the season drew on: in eleven August and September starts, Volquez gave up 13 runs in 71.2 innings -- which is...good. Volquez brings this run into tonight's Wild Card matchup, as Pittsburgh's latest low-risk signing hopes to yield a high reward.
San Francisco Giants - Madison Bumgarner
Most of the San Francisco Giants' core -- the players whose ring fingers bear evidence of their recent success -- remain. Names like Posey, Pablo, Pence, the Brandons Belt and Crawford: all remain from past San Francisco victors. And while the Giants have made moves to solidify their playoff positioning this season (acquiring Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy; signing Michael Morse), none of these acquisitions will even see the field in tonight's Wild Card game. The most important acquisition, and most important player, for the Giants was picked up back in 2007: Madison Bumgarner will pace the Giants tonight.
The Giants drafted Bumgarner with the 10th overall pick in 2007. Arriving on the scene in 2010, when he became the youngest left-hander in MLB history to throw eight scoreless innings in the World Series, Bumgarner has cemented himself atop Frisco's rotation. Bumgarner's 2014 has been par for the 24 year-old's sparkling young course: 2.98 ERA, 3.05 FIP (the exact same figure as his 2013 campaign), 1.09 WHIP, and career bests in K/9 (9.1) and K/BB (5.09). Bumgarner's 4.0 WAR is the highest of his career. Plus, the man can hit, stroking two grand slams this season. In a league where most pitchers are outs disguised as hitters in the batters box, Bumgarner presents a legitimate threat with the stick.
In 2012, Bumgarner signed a six-year, $35 million contract, carrying him through 2017 (the team has options to keep him -- lucrative ones for Bumgarner -- in 2018 and '19). The Giants, hoping to re-conjure their ever-present, every-other-year postseason success, will rely on Bumgarner tonight. But even if the Giants don't advance, Bumgarner is in the bay to stay, in even years and odd ones.