Andrew McCutchen knew good things were afoot when Francisco Liriano showed up to Tuesday night's Wild-Card game with his suit on: "He had the expectancy to win. When he showed up with his suit on, that got me hyped up."
Not only did Liriano have his suit on, but he also had his suitcase packed. The message from Liriano to his teammates, the fans, and the Cincinnati Reds was obvious - Liriano had all intentions of boarding the next plane to St. Louis.
And on Tuesday night, the Pirates punched their first class tickets to the Gateway to the West. Before 40, 487 stark-raving mad fans, Liriano and Russell Martin gave the performances of their lives, leading the Pirates to a 6-2 victory over the Reds, marking the first trip to the playoffs for the Pirates in 21 years.
The last time the Pirates were in the playoffs in 1992, Barry Bonds's throw home was barely beaten by the Braves's Sid Bream, allowing the Braves to beat the Pirates in the bottom of the 9th, of Game 7, of the National League championships series.
This time around, the same scenario was not even close to recurring. Liriano gave up only 4 hits in 7 innings, while striking out 5. Russell Martin, catcher for the Pirates, had a record-setting night at the plate. Russell became the second Pirate ever to have a multi-homer postseason performance in the team's 132 year history. Russell also became only the second player to hit two home runs in a game played in Pittsburgh, the other being Mickey Mantle. Russell's 2 home runs also make him only the third catcher in major league history to have a multi-homer postseason game, the other two being Johnny Bench and Gary Carter.
Russell's response: "It's definitely a good feeling, but we've still got work to do."
Cincinnati has a lot of work to do this off-season. After achieving their 90th win of the season, the Reds lost their last 5 regular season games (3 of which to the Pirates, perhaps foretelling events to come), and literally dropped the ball in their only post-season game.
In his first ever playoff at-bat in his 1,250 game career, Marlon Byrd blasted a home run into left field to lead off the 2nd inning. It was at this point that Pirates fans showed exactly how ravenous for a win they were, taunting Reds's pitcher Johnny Cueto by chanting his name: "Cue-to, Cue-to, Cue-to..." Cueto seemingly responded well to the pressure, getting the next batter out. Cueto's next move, however, captured Tuesday night's performance by the Reds perfectly, however.
As Russell Martin dug in at the plate to receive the next pitch from Cueto, the Reds's pitcher simply dropped the ball. Out of his hand the ball went, skittering into the infield grass.
Before the game, Reds's manager Dusty Baker discussed Cueto facing the Pirates's fans: “If you know Johnny Cueto like I know Johnny Cueto, he thrives in this type of environment.” Apparently Dusty should spend this off-season getting to know his pitcher a little better. After the game, the Reds continued to defend their pitcher and his nerves of steel: "I don't think he was rattled. That's one thing with Johnny I don't worry about," said Reds's catcher Ryan Hannigan.
Cueto himself denied any allegations that the crowd shook his confidence, stating “No, no, I don’t care about those things. I don’t listen to them. It’s like opening day; it’s like any other game. It doesn’t scare me. You may think I was scared when the ball dropped — but the ball dropped.”
While the Reds are reluctant to blame their pitcher, shortstop Brandon Phillips was not hesitant to blame the team, and even himself, for the Reds's loss: “We choked. We did. I don’t care about how my teammates feel about what I’m saying right now, because it’s the truth.” Phillips then responded to a question concerning how he felt about his own performance, stating “I choked. I didn’t do nothing. It’s not the team’s fault, it’s my fault. I had the opportunity to come through for the team, and I didn’t do that.”
While the Reds spend the off-season trying to figure out why the end of their season faltered, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker will be relishing this time of triumph for the city of Pittsburgh: "This is just really special for the city of Pittsburgh. And nobody knows that more than me. I'm 28 years old. I've seen a lot of stuff. I've been in this organization since 2004. So I know this is special. And what's really special is that we feel like this is just the beginning."
The beginning of the next series for the Pirates starts Thursday in St. Louis, where Pittsburgh faces the regular-season division champions, the Cardinals.
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