Upon being bounced from the postseason after it had hardly begun, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips used the most explosive word to be heard in any locker room: Cincinnati, he said, "choked" in the Wild Card Game last night. The word choke makes for a headline and grabs attention, two things Phillips never shies away from. But it's simply dead wrong. The Reds didn't choke. They were a team that had been leaking oil for weeks, and that was in no shape to deal with a worst-case pitching matchup: lefty-killer Francisco Liriano dealing in his home ballpark in Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati gave the ball to a rusty Johnny Cueto, who had thrown just 12 innings since June 28, all against the Mets and the Astros, two of the worst offenses in baseball. Reds manager Dusty Baker had to start Cueto because Mat Latos was hurt. His bullpen didn't have Tony Cingrani, who was hurt, or an effective version of Sean Marshall, who was hurt for much of the year. Cincinnati's offense entered the game hitting .234 over its last 18 games. Drip, drip, drip.
The Reds rely on the left-handed bats of Shin-Shoo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but that trio had no chance against Liriano. The Pirates left-hander had faced 138 lefties this year and had allowed no home runs, just two extra-base hits and a .131 batting average.
It was a worst-case scenario for Cincinnati, which put itself in this position with an 8-10 finish, a slump that included getting swept at home by the Pirates on the final weekend of the season. Cueto looked like a pitcher fussing his way through a rehab start. The right-hander just wasn't game sharp. Since last season, when an oblique injury took him out of the Division Series after one batter -- and similar injuries kept him on the shelf for most of this year -- Cueto and the Reds have thought about ditching his whirling delivery. With the season on the line last night, Cueto was so lost he decided to give the idea a try. When he came to the mound in the third inning -- after having continually left balls up in the first two innings -- he pitched out of the stretch, ditching his Luis Tiant-like spin. Cueto lasted only four more outs. He faced just 19 batters in all, and nine of them reached base. He had no strikeouts.
Yes, anything can happen in a one-game playoff. But you definitely don't want your ace to improvise his way through a start.
Liriano was too good to let Cincinnati get away with Cueto's makeshift performance. Of Liriano's first seven pitches, the Reds swung and missed at four of them. When the fourth inning started Cincinnati still hadn't hit a ball out of the infield. It was 3-0 by then and the game was effectively over.
Liriano is the kind of scavenger hunt story that keeps general managers dreaming. The same guy who lost his stuff to Tommy John surgery and continually fought bouts of wildness was out there on the free-agent market while teams were dropping $146 million to stock their rotations with such pitchers as Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster, Jeremy Guthrie, Brandon McCarthy, Joe Blanton and Dan Haren.
Free agency gets attention because of dollars, but it works because of fits. And the Pirates and Liriano are a great fit. By coming to Pittsburgh, Liriano broke free from the American League to the easier National League lineups. He also fell into the Pirate Way of pitching. Pittsburgh bases its pitching philosophy on this premise: Figure out what pitch in what count in what location has the greatest chance of producing a groundball and throw it. Liriano bought all in, junking his four-seam fastball to become a sinker-slider-changeup pitcher.
This year the Pirates' staff was the only one in baseball that induced ground balls on more than half the balls put in play against it. Ground balls do not result in extra bases nearly as often as do fly balls and line drives. Last night Liriano obtained only two of his 21 outs in the air: one fly ball and one pop-up.
The Reds did not choke. They had no chance.
2. Time to reconsider Chapman's role
Let the debate start up again about what to do with Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman. As the Reds finished the year 0-6, Chapman pitched in just one of those games and affected none of them. He threw only 63 2/3 innings this year and only 48 percent of the batters he faced were hitting in high leverage situations. So in 163 games Cincinnati used its best arm to pitch about 30-something important innings -- none of them as their season went down the tubes. Why? Because the Reds have bought into the myth of the great and powerful closer.
Maybe Chapman would not cut it as a starter -- even though he was trained that way in Cuba only to have Major League Baseball turn him into the pitching equivalent of a porcelain vase. Maybe it's too late to return him to rotation, at the risk of turning him into another Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz or Daniel Bard.
But the fact is that Chapman was worthless as Cincinnati's season petered out.
Meanwhile, Reds manager Dusty Baker, one of the true gems of the game, goes home with another postseason loss. Once upon a time -- the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series to be exact -- Baker held a five-run lead and was five outs away from a world championship. Since that moment, when he told Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz to take the ball as a keepsake, he has managed 10 playoff games and lost nine of them: two in the 2002 World Series, three with the 2003 Cubs, three last year with Cincinnati and then Tuesday night. Baseball is a cruel game, but not in equal measures for all.
3. Rays hidden ace hopes to keep Indians down
The AL Wild Card game tonight presents a fascinating pitching matchup: Alex Cobb, 25, of the Rays against Danny Salazar, 23, of the Indians.
Cobb was unbeatable at Tropicana Field this year, setting a franchise record for the most wins without a loss at home (7-0), and becoming one of only 17 pitchers since 1916 to go undefeated at home with at least 13 starts. (Jose Fernandez of the Marlins also did so this year.) But he is also outstanding on the road, which is good for Tampa Bay since tonight's game is in Cleveland. Everything Cobb throws -- the darting sinker, the phenomenal split-change and the nasty spike-curve -- goes down. He has not allowed a home run with a man on base since April, and against 1,371 batters in his career he has never has allowed a home run with more than one man on base.
In 31 starts since Aug. 15, 2012 -- the rough equivalent of a full season (he was hit in the head by a line drive in June and missed two months) -- Cobb is 16-4 with a 2.66 ERA. David Price, the determined winner of Game 163, may be Tampa Bay's staff ace, but Cobb has been the Rays' best pitcher.
Salazar is the rare starting pitcher who is capable of throwing 100 mph. But Cleveland kept training wheels on the 23-year-old righthander. He averaged five innings per start in his 10 big league starts and only once threw more than 89 pitches.