WHEN YOU head out this weekend to follow your favorite high school or college football team, what will the odds be of the cheerleaders encouraging you to chant, “We’re number two” or “We’re number three”?

But that’s the mindset of those misguided folks who criticized Pirates manager Clint Hurdle for pitching Gerrit Cole in the season finale 11 days ago, rather than save the right-hander for last Wednesday’s wild card game.

The Bucs took the St. Louis Cardinals down to game 162, when — had the Pirates won and Cardinals lost — the teams would have tied for first and met for a one-game playoff last Monday, with that game’s winner the division champion and the loser the wild card.

Hurdle started Gerrit Cole Sunday in his regular turn in the rotation rather than hold him back, either for the possible tiebreaker in St. Louis or the wild card game in Pittsburgh.

Before Hurdle made his decision for Sunday, he spoke to several people. The Post-Gazette’s Bill Brink reported that Hurdle surveyed his coaching staff, general manager Neal Huntington, club president Frank Coonelly, owner Bob Nutting, and the leadership council of players.

“To a man, unequivocally, there was no pause, no doubt, no, ‘Let me figure this out; let me see what's best, how we're best suited,’” Hurdle said.

Their response? “Let's win the game,” he said.

“We don't ever come in and say, ‘Let's get the wild card,’” third-baseman Josh Harrison said. “Nobody does that. We didn't come in today saying, 'Let's not throw Cole.' Regardless of what outsiders might think, we came in today wanting to win the division, and Cole starting gave us a great chance.”

“Everybody pretty unanimously felt like we had to go for it,” second-baseman Neil Walker added. “We felt we were cheating ourselves if we didn't give ourselves an opportunity.”

But, as Bob Smizik wrote in his blog, the players wanted a shot at the division title, and denying their wishes could have hurt Hurdle's credibility in the clubhouse.

There was no baseball reason why Hurdle should have “saved” Cole; the skipper’s decision was absolutely the right one.

Plus it wasn’t as if they were throwing Jeff Locke or Jeanmar Gomez against the Giants.

Edinson Volquez had a 3.06 ERA in 106 home innings at home this season and held opposing batters to a .225 average. He only allowed five home runs at PNC Park. And his recent performances were even better: 1.05 ERA in his last five home starts, yielding just 16 hits while fanning 29 in 34.2 innings.

The righty went 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA in his final 17 starts from June 23 on, posting the fourth-lowest ERA in the major leagues over that time. He ended the season with a career-best 18 consecutive scoreless innings streak and had the second-lowest ERA of 1.08 during September.

His 13 wins and his 31 starts were team toppers; his 3.04 season ERA was second only to Vance Worley’s 2.84, and his 140 strikeouts were second only to Francisco Liriano’s 175 whiffs.

Of course, the Pirates starting pitcher wasn’t the problem. Certainly, Volquez just did not have it — giving up more runs in five-plus innings than he did in all of September.

But he — or Cole or anyone else — would have had to throw a shutout…just to earn a tie, as the Pirates’ bats went Arctic cold at the mercy of San Fran’s Madison Bumgarner, who threw 79 of his 109 pitches for strikes and allowed only three runners into scoring position. No Pirate reached third base until the eighth inning — thanks to two Giant errors.

“Last year we were fortunate enough to win the wild card game,” Harrison said. “This year we weren't. That's the risk you have with one-game playoffs.”

“There's no way we're going to walk away from an opportunity to win our division,” Hurdle emphasized.

Who wouldn’t agree?

Oh, yeah, those people who are comfortable chanting, “We’re number two!”

Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for The Allied News.

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