Giger: It would be disappointing if Pirates don’t return to PNC Park for playoffs

Some Monday morning quarterbacking thoughts:

On the Pirates

* The Pirates might have played their final home game of 2013 on Sunday, and it will be a shame if that’s the case and the great fans of Pittsburgh are denied a chance to see them host at least one playoff game.

This has been a fantastic season by every account, but it seems inevitable that the Reds will find a way to overtake the Bucs for the top wild-card spot in the National League. The teams are tied with six games remaining, and after taking two of three in Pittsburgh, the Reds have the advantage since they will be hosting the Bucs to close the regular season this weekend.

If the Reds edge the Pirates – and presuming the Cardinals win the division – then the Bucs will have to play on the road at Cincy in a one-game, win-or-be-done scenario next Tuesday.

No matter how you cut it, if the Pirates were to lose that game on the road, it would leave an undeniable void bordering on a sense of failure for many fans.

No, it wouldn’t diminish the great things the franchise accomplished this season, but finishing third in the division, not getting to celebrate any kind of title or even host a playoff game would be an unsatisfying way to finish this fun year for both the players and fans.

* Remember when Jeff Locke was an NL All-Star in July? His collapse since then, culminating with Sunday’s first-inning meltdown against the Reds, is one of the biggest reasons why the Pirates will not win the division. He was 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA before the All-Star break and 2-5, 6.12 since.

We probably will not see Locke pitch in a meaningful situation again the rest of the season. He’s just not reliable.

* The Pirates plan to go with lefty Francisco Liriano in the wild-card game. He’s 0-3 with a 3.70 ERA in four starts versus the Reds this season, although he did pitch well against them Friday (two runs on three hits in eight innings).

* Gerrit Cole has been the Bucs’ best pitcher lately only four runs allowed over 26 innings in his past four starts and he could be a valuable weapon if they do go deep in the playoffs.

* The Pirates have been such a great story in baseball that it has propelled Andrew McCutchen to frontrunner status for NL MVP. As good as he is, McCutchen’s numbers .319, 20 homers, 82 RBIs are not MVP caliber, but he gets a lion’s share of the attention for the Bucs’ success.

But what if they finish third in the division? That could that cause some voters to change their mind, although no one else in the NL has the kind of numbers to be considered an easy choice over McCutchen.

* Bronson Arroyo, the winning pitcher for the Reds on Sunday, is the only player from the Curve’s inaugural 1999 team still playing organized baseball (majors or minors). Arroyo went 15-4 still the franchise record for wins with a 3.65 ERA for Altoona in ’99.

* It’s ridiculous how many times the Reds seemingly have been able to get away with hitting Pirates players, particularly McCutchen, without the Bucs having a chance to retaliate.

However you feel about intentionally throwing at hitters I for one think it’s silly and childish the bottom line is that’s how baseball polices itself. When umpires issue premature warnings to both benches before the other team gets to retaliate, it’s not only unfair, it’s dangerous because it gives one team free rein to keep plunking your guys.

On Penn State

* The Nittany Lions have three good tailbacks who can do a lot of damage at any point in Zach?Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, and it’s possible the best of the bunch is a guy in Lynch who didn’t even get on the field until the closing minutes of Saturday’s 34-0 thumping of Kent State.

Lynch ran for 123 yards on only 14 carries, showing power and elusiveness. He looks like a good mix between Zwinak and Belton, and once he gets his blocking skills down, he could become a factor much earlier in games.

Not to diminish what Lynch accomplished, but his carries did come late in the game against a tired defense full of players who knew by that point they had zero chance of winning. I point that out because there is a growing number of PSU fans who want to see Lynch become the starter over Zwinak.

That’s not fair to Zwinak, or even Belton, both of whom are having to carry the ball early in games against fresh defenses with the outcome yet to be determined.

The rotation of Zwinak first, then Belton, then Lynch seems to be working and gives PSU coach Bill O’Brien the luxury of keeping a good, fresh tailback in at all times.

Maybe Lynch is the best of the three – or could be soon – but Zwinak ran for 1,000 yards last season and has earned the opportunity to be the first ballcarrier.

* The Lions’ defense played great Saturday, but let’s not jump to the conclusion that all the problems have been solved simply by shutting out a lousy offensive team. College football teams and games are not apples to apples comparisons.

Indiana, which averages 349 yards passing, will be a much better test for the secondary in two weeks. After that game we’ll have a better indication about the defensive line’s ability to rush the passer and the cornerbacks’ ability to shut down receivers.

* Christian Hackenberg played poorly Saturday, plain and simple. Surely the rain played a role in his struggles, and he probably lost some confidence, too, as he continued to misfire.

But in all honesty, that kind of game might be the best thing that could have happened to?Hackenberg.

There was no chance Penn State was going to lose, so the 18-year-old freshman was able to survive having a bad game without the additional burden of feeling like he let the team down in a loss.

Players can improve when everything’s going great, but many learn more about themselves when they face adversity and find ways to overcome it.

Hackenberg really hadn’t encountered adversity until Saturday, so now Bill O’Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have a lot of areas they can point to during their film study to help the young quarterback see his mistakes and figure out how to correct them.