NL Wild Card Game preview: Pirates and Reds face off one last time
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Reds at Pirates
Start time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Starting pitchers: Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA)
The Pirates just proved their superiority over the Reds by sweeping the final three games of the regular season in Cincinnati by a combined score of 16-6. For the year, Pittsburgh went 11-8 against the Reds and finished four games ahead of them in the National League Central. Yet all those last three victories got the Bucs was the right to play at home in Tuesday night's Wild Card Game, where a single loss to Cincinnati could end their season.
This situation is unique in baseball history. Prior to 2012, every one-game playoff had occurred between two teams that were tied in the standings. In last year's wild-card matchups, the Rangers and Orioles had identical 93-69 records. In the NL, the Braves' record was six games better than the Cardinals', due in large part to Atlanta's 5-1 advantage in the season series between the two teams.
It's fitting that the Pirates and the Reds are pitted against each other in the Wild Card Game. They have been climbing over each other in the NL Central all season, and are more evenly matched than their last three games suggest. Prior to that Cincinnati homestand, they were tied 8-8 in the season series, and the Reds had outscored Pittsburgh in those games 65-57. Cincinnati also had the better run differential on the season, suggesting that it was actually the better team.
Even the Reds' 41-41 road record belies how well they have played outside of Cincinnati, as their road run differential this season was actually better than their home mark and translates to a .598 Pythagorean winning percentage in those 81 road games. The difference is due in part to the fact that the Reds lost eight road games on walkoffs, three of them with the winning hit coming while Cincinnati was ahead in the game and had closer Aroldis Chapman on the mound. Give the Reds those three wins and three of the remaining five (roughly half of the games that were tied heading into that final plate appearance) and their road winning percentage jumps to .580.
That's no small thing. All five of Chapman's blown saves and four of his five losses this season have come on the road, where his ERA has been 5.96, his WHIP 1.77, and he has walked 17 men in 22 2/3 innings (6.7 BB/9). Chapman has been flawless in seven appearances against the Pirates this season (6 1/3 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 11 K, converting all five save chances), but Pittsburgh did walk off against Cincinnati's Alfredo Simon in the 11th inning on June 2. The Reds, of course, hope to score enough runs to give Chapman a large margin for error Tuesday night, though it won't be easy against the Pirates' surprising left-handed ace Francisco Liriano.
One of the most exciting young pitchers in baseball back in 2006, Liriano had Tommy John surgery that November and never fully recovered his rookie form. In the five seasons from his '08 return to last year, he went 40-49 with a 4.75 ERA, while walking more than four men per nine innings. He also endured shoulder trouble in '11. A free agent this past offseason, he broke the humerus bone in his pitching arm in a bathroom fall in December, but Pittsburgh took a chance on him in February anyway. Liriano made his belated Pirates debut on May 11, but from that point forward, he was one of the best pitchers in the National League, going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning while lowering his walk and home run rates.
The difference, as SI.com's Jon Tayler pointed out in July, is the mothballing of his four-seam fastball in favor of more sinkers, and, per Sports on Earth's Howard Megdal, a small mechanical change by pitching coach Ray Searage that has increased the movement on his slider and changeup. Liriano's occasional rough outings tend to be particularly ugly (he has a 9.34 ERA in losses), and have come more often in the last two months, but he still hasn't had consecutive bad starts all year and hasn't had consecutive non-quality starts since his first two of the season. Liriano's last start of the regular season was non-quality (5 IP, 4 R against the Cubs), which would suggest he'll bounce back in this game.
Also in Liriano's favor is the fact that he has gone 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at PNC Park this season and has held lefties to a .131/.175/.145 line on the season. That last split suggests that the Reds will have to win without much help from the three best hitters in their lineup, lefties Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce. Indeed, those three are a combined 3-for-33 (.090) with three walks and no extra-base hits against Liriano this season, with Bruce having failed to reach base by any method in 11 confrontations with Liriano this season.
Despite that, Liriano is 0-3 with a 3.70 against the Reds this year, with righties Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco and Chris Heisey going a combined 7-for-18 (.388) with four home runs in 23 plate appearances against him in those three games. Only one of those starts was a bad one, however, and that came in Cincinnati's hitting-friendly Great American Ball Park. In his only home start against the Reds this season, Liriano held the Reds to one run over six innings while striking out 11, but lost 2-0.
The Reds, meanwhile, are going with Johnny Cueto. He was not the first choice of manager Dusty Baker, but because Mat Latos has been diagnosed with a bone spur in his pitching elbow (the Reds are hoping Latos will be able to start if they reach the Division Series), Cueto is getting the call.
Cueto is looking for his first postseason win in three starts and redemption for pulling up lame with a right oblique strain just six pitches into his Game 1 start in last year's Division Series against the Giants. Since that outing, Cueto has been unable to make more than three consecutive starts without again injuring himself due to a recurring latissimus dorsi strain near his pitching shoulder. Tuesday night's start will be Cueto's third since returning from his third stint on the disabled list this season. He has faced the Pirates twice before this season, both times in Pittsburgh and both times he landed on the DL after that start.
That said, when able to pitch, Cueto has been his typically dominant self. In his two prior starts against the Pirates this season, he allowed just one run in 12 1/3 innings, and he has allowed only one earned run (plus one unearned) in 12 innings since being activated on Sept. 16. Take out his one disaster start this season, and Cueto has posted a 1.92 ERA in the other 10, despite two of them being shortened by injury. Thus it may be his health, not so much the Pirates' lineup, that is the biggest obstacle for Cueto tonight. Well, that and Marlon Byrd, who is 7-for-12 (.583) against Cueto in his career and homered and walked in his only two plate appearances against him earlier this year, when Byrd was with the Mets. The presence of Byrd (.318/.357/.486 as a Pirate) is a reminder of how much the Bucs improved themselves over the final two months of the season. They added both Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau, who is still looking for his first Pirates home run but has a .370 on-base percentage with Pittsburgh, and got leftfielder Starling Marte back from the bruised hand that cost him the second half of August. The Pirates didn't have all three of those men together in the lineup, or in the field, where a great deal of Marte's value lies, until Sept. 18, but all three should be in there tonight trying to help the Bucs vanquish the Reds once and for all.