Regardless of your allegiance, watching a city host its first playoff game in 21 years is fun and heartwarming. For the first time since the days of Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland, Pittsburgh will host a postseason baseball game. That’s 7,760 days in between playoff games in the Steel City. The magical Pirates will host a National League Central rival, the Cincinnati Reds, on Tuesday night for the first of the wild-card games that debuted last season.
The NL Central was a force this season as three of the division’s five teams won at least 90 games and reached the playoffs. The Reds limp into the playoffs having dropped their final five games of the regular season, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates. And Pittsburgh holds the edge in the season series, beating the Reds 11 of 19 times this season. The games, however, were all close contests as 12 of the 19 were decided by two runs or less. The Pirates boast a likely NL MVP candidate, Andrew McCutchen, along with three other all-stars.
The Pirates’ best season since 1992 now rests in the hands of starter Francisco Liriano. The Pirates are in this position thanks to the improvements of their players, the managing of Clint Hurdle and several small but smart moves by General Manager Neal Huntington. Liriano was one of the best signings of winter. The left-hander posted a 16-8 record, a 3.02 ERA and struck out 163 batters over 161 innings. The 29-year-old has been a death knell to left-handed batters, allowing them to hit only .131 against him. In fact, he has surrendered only two extra-base hits to left-handers this season. And guess which of the Reds hitters are left-handed? Their best ones — Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce.
The Reds counter with Johnny Cueto, their ace of a year ago who has been injured much of this season. Mat Latos would have started the win-or-go-home game but an elbow spur in his throwing arm prevented him from doing so. He will still try to pitch through it if the Reds advance. So instead, the Reds turn to Cueto, who is making only his third start since returning from the disabled list from a lat strain on Sept. 16. He has allowed only one earned run over his past 12 innings and reports on him have been good, so that bodes well for Cincinnati. But so much hinges on the performances of a team’s starting pitcher in a situation like this.
A one-game playoff game undermines baseball’s core principals. Over a season, teams play mostly three- and four-games series. A season is a grueling 162-game marathon. Boiling down six months into one October night seems almost cruel. But this is the new playoff model and Commissioner Bud Selig’s dream to drum up more interest. More money is infused into the sport this way. More cities, teams and fan bases are invested deeper into the season than they normally would. So, sorry Pittsburgh, your rise to glory rests solely on this one shot. The winner plays a familiar foe: the St. Louis Cardinals.
8 p.m. on TBS
RHP Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82 ERA) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA)
Reds lineup: Shin-Soo Choo CF; Ryan Ludwick LF; Joey Votto 1B; Brandon Phillips 2B; Jay Bruce RF; Todd Frazier 3B; Zack Cozart SS; Ryan Hanigan C; Johnny Cueto SP.
Pirates lineup: Starling Marte LF; Neil Walker 2B; Andrew McCutchen CF; Justin Morneau 1B; Marlon Byrd RF; Pedro Alvarez 3B; Russell Martin C; Clint Barmes SS; Fracisco Liriano SP