PIT@CHC: Cole pitches six strong, adds two-RBI single

CINCINNATI -- Instead of getting to pitch the biggest game of his life, Gerrit Cole on Sunday got to watch Brandon Cumpton start the Pirates' "smallest" game in 21 years.

Such was the effect of the Bucs' Wild Card home-field clinching victory Saturday. Other than forcing Cole to make an emotional adjustment, this was not a bad development for a young right-hander whose innings count has been of ongoing concern.

"Yeah, we don't mind him getting a blow," said manager Clint Hurdle, who hopes Cole's down-time continues through Tuesday night's Wild Card Game at PNC Park against the Reds.

Cole could have two major roles in that play-in game, neither preferred: Early, if starter Francisco Liriano needs rescue; or very late, if the game turns into an extra-inning marathon.

"So I hope he gets a blow Tuesday night, too, because if I use him, it'll be only if there are some early complications for Frankie, or we're in an extended game," Hurdle said. "Then we'll figure out what's next, how we'll set up."

Cole is locked into the Pirates' rotation, should it progress beyond Tuesday, but where he will be slotted obviously depends on whether he is needed in the Wild Card Game. He last pitched this past Tuesday, so he will be dealing with at least 10 days between starts.

"There are three options for keeping him as sharp as possible," said Hurdle. "More aggressive bullpens, throwing to hitters in a bullpen, or simulated batting practice."

If victorious Tuesday, Bucs would face Cardinals

Clint Hurdle joins MLB Now to discuss his team

CINCINNATI -- The Pirates, of course, hope it becomes an issue. For it to have mattered, they will have to get past the Reds in Tuesday's Wild Card Game.

But, in a hypothetical sense, the identity of their potential Division Series foe was intriguing because of their competitive contrast between Atlanta and St. Louis -- which did claim the National League's top seed and thus the right to meet the winner of the Wild Card Game.

The Cardinals, whom the Bucs played 19 times, as recently as Sept. 8?

Or, the Braves, whom the Bucs have not seen since June 5? That was so long ago, Gerrit Cole was still in Triple-A Indianapolis.

An opponent with whom you are extremely familiar -- as they are with you -- or a lesser-known foe?

"We've had people watching the Braves for three weeks," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, citing routine scouting campaigns. "[We would've been] very comfortable with the information [we had]. Same with the Los Angeles Dodgers [for a possible NLCS run-in].

"St. Louis, obviously we're very familiar with. 'Comfort' is not the right word. But we do have a sound knowledge, as we do with the Reds. We've seen all their players and their pitchers, got their defensive and offensive tendencies ... and they've got ours."

Something to contemplate: The Cardinals and now both potential NLCS opponents -- the Braves and the Dodgers -- have each swept the Pirates in three-game series in their ballparks.

First number, last word

1.39: Mark Melancon's ERA, in 71 innings, entering Sunday's season finale. That will rank as the lowest in club history for anyone with 50-plus innings in relief, bettering Larry Demery's mark of 1.53 for 64 2/3 innings in 1975.

"Managing games of no consequence when we weren't in the race ... I've had many opportunities along those lines. But this is different. Guess we've earned this opportunity to ratchet down." -- Hurdle, on the Pirates being able to unplug for Game No. 162, following Saturday's No. 1 Wild Card clincher

Worth noting

Neil Walker got cranking a little too late (six homers in his last nine games) to threaten Bill Mazeroski's club record of 19 home runs by a second baseman -- but the Pittsburgh Kid's 16 do rank as the high for the position since Maz's 16 in 1966.

• The Pirates are the Majors' first team to make it to the postseason with only one starting pitcher with more than 10 wins since ... Clint Hurdle's 2007 Rockies. Colorado's top winner that season was Jeff Francis, with 17, and Josh Fogg followed with 10.

Vin Mazzaro's eight relief wins are the most on the Pirates since Matt Capps' nine in 2006.

• The Pirates have formally shut down Jeff Locke for the year. GM Neal Huntington confirmed Sunday that the lefty will not be on the roster for any possible postseason round.