National League Wild Card Game – Pittsburgh Pirates vs Cincinnati Reds

by Bill M on October 1, 2013 · 1 comment

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As a long-suffering Pirates fan, it’s actually not all that hard to think back to little-known Francisco Cabrera lining a baseball to Barry Bonds in leftfield; knobby-kneed Sid Bream rounding third base and [supposedly] beating Barry’s throw to home plate, scoring the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.  We knew Barry was on his way out that offseason via free agency, but it was hard to fathom that this heartbreaking moment was just the kickoff to two decades of futility.

But, that’s exactly what it was.  Nary a 0.500 record in 20 seasons ensued, setting a new record losing streak for North American professional team sports.  New ownership brought some hope in 2007, but the organization was so bereft of talent from the McClatchy years that even then we knew it was going to be a while before the team was viable.  After two straight seasons of excellent first halves followed by gut-wrenching collapses, 2013 has proven to be the year.

Tonight the MLB playoffs welcome back the storied Pittsburgh Pirate franchise, as they square off versus the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game sudden death NL Wild Card game.  It is a bittersweet matchup for me because I have also become latched onto the Reds over the years, being beaten down by the myriad Reds fans among my friendships.  But, that allegiance will go on hold for me tonight, as it has the past two weekends when the two teams fought it out for home field for this Wild Card game.  The Pirates won out on the home field, but will they win the game tonight?

I started doing a long in depth analysis and realized it was boring as shit.  So, let’s keep it simple.  The Pirates finished with a better record, but were slightly worse statistically.  What does that say?  The Pirates got a bit lucky but are also better in the clutch.  A lot of this has to do with MVP frontrunner Andrew McCutchen and NL HR Co-Champ Pedro Alvarez.  They will need to step it up for the Pirates’ season to continue.

They will have to do it against Pirate-killer Johnny Cueto.  The Reds will counter with Pirate-killer and Ace Johnny Cueto.  Cueto has a 13-4 career record against the Pirates with 2.37 ERA and 1.015 WHIP.  He’s spent most of the season on the DL with a lat strain, but according to him, he feels fresh like the beginning of the season now.  His performance supports his anecdotal comments with a 0.75 ERA, 1.000 WHIP in 12 IP since returning from the DL.  It’s hard to decide if pitching Cueto with just 12 recent innings under his belt is gutsy or a no-brainer.  Given his stuff and past performance, I think it’s a no-brainer.

The Pirates return to winning and the playoffs was in no small part due to GM Neal Huntington taking a flyer and signing the talented but enigmatic LHP Francisco Liriano off of the scrap heap.  Tonight, the Buccos will pin their continued post season hopes on Liriano.  His velocity is nearly back to peak levels 93.66 MPH for his sinker, and the slider has been wipeout.  Liriano’s renaissance has not been without some hiccups as he finished with a 3.50 ERA in 16 2nd half starts, including 4 starts where he didn’t make it through 5 innings.

Much of the Reds offensive prowess is from the left handed side, primarily Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo, and Jay Bruce, so on the surface Liriano looks like an even better choice.  While these are the dominant forces, the reality of the matter is that the team has batted just barely worse versus LHP as RHP (711 OPS to 721).  That said, Liriano’s most recent performance against the Reds was an 8 inning, 2 earned run affair that resulted in a no-decision on Sept. 20.  If he repeats that, the Pirates will be in good shape.

I have to give the up-front starting pitching nod to the Reds, but I believe the Pirates will go to their vaunted “Shark Tank” bullpen (2.89 ERA) early and often if Liriano isn’t on his game.  I also have to imagine that rookie sensation Gerrit Cole has to be available for this game.  It doesn’t really matter what the rotation looks like for the NLDS if you are sitting at home watching it.

The Reds have a pretty good pen as well (3.29 ERA), and with the addition of Sean Marshall off the DL, it’s even stronger.  Cueto and Marshall re-joining the team are better than any trade deadline moves the Reds could have made.

Speaking of late season additions, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest “wild card” in this Wild Card game: Billy Hamilton.  The precocious talent will bring his elite speed skills to this game at some point, and it’s hard to think he won’t have an impact.

So, where does all of this leave us?  I’m sure with one heck of a game tonight.  I’ll take Cutch and the Shark Tank making the difference, and the home team keeps the dream alive.

Pirates 3-2.

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