Pittsburgh end 21-year post-season exile
The Pittsburgh Pirates went 21 years between play-off games. The wait will be significantly shorter this time around.
Russell Martin homered twice, Francisco Liriano was dominant for seven innings and the Pirates roared past Cincinnati for a 6-2 victory in the National League wild-card game on Tuesday night.
In front of a black-clad crowd savouring its first post-season game since 1992, Marlon Byrd also connected and Andrew McCutchen had two hits and reached base four times for Pittsburgh.
"We're for real," McCutchen said. "We're definitely for real."
Liriano scattered four hits for the Pirates, who will face St Louis in Game One of the NL Division Series on Thursday. Liriano struck out five and walked one to win the first play-off game of his career.
"We didn't talk about one-and-done; we talked about one and run," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Win one and run to St Louis."
Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto struggled in his third start since coming off the injured list last month. He gave up four runs in 3 1/3 innings and appeared rattled by a raucous ballpark that taunted him by chanting his name.
The 36-year-old Byrd, acquired by the Pirates in late August from the New York Mets, celebrated the first post-season at-bat of his 12-year career - 1,250 games - by sending Cueto's fastball into the seats to give the Pirates the lead. The shot sent another jolt through an already electric crowd, which began singing, "Cue-to, Cue-to," in unison when Martin stepped in.
"This is 20 years of waiting. You're seeing it all come out in one night," Martin said. "Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere 'til late October."
Martin sent a drive into the bleachers in left field. The Reds never recovered, ending a 90-win season with a six-game losing streak. Three of those losses came against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati, in the final series of the season, which determined the site of the win-or-die game.
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker backed Cueto before the game, saying his ace "thrives on this environment." Maybe, but the right-hander never looked comfortable in front of the largest crowd in PNC Park history, a place Cueto has dominated. Cueto, who went in 8-2 at the ballpark by the Allegheny River, even lost his grip on the ball while standing on the mound. A moment later, he lost his grip on the game.
Martin's 405-foot shot to left-center gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead and all the momentum Liriano would require. Signed on the cheap in the off-season after a mediocre 2012 split between the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox, Liriano has been reborn in Pittsburgh. He went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA during the regular season, his devastating slider nearly unhittable against left-handers.
The Reds proved no match. Joey Votto went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Jay Bruce produced an RBI single in the fourth but Cincinnati never really threatened on a night baseball officially returned to Pittsburgh after a 20-year trek through purgatory. Shin-Soo Choo homered in the eighth, a drive to right field that was upheld by video review.
Pittsburgh's 94-win regular season reignited a relationship sullied by years of mismanagement and miserable play. When the gates opened two hours before the first pitch, fans - most of them dressed in black at the urging of MVP candidate McCutchen - sprinted to their seats in anticipation of the club's first post-season game since Atlanta's Sid Bream slid into home ahead of Barry Bonds' throw in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the 1992 NL Championship Series.
The victory sent the Braves to the World Series and the Pirates into an abyss it took an entire generation to escape. The first step came with victory number 82 on September 9. The next came two weeks later when a win over the Chicago Cubs assured the Pirates of a wild-card spot. The most thrilling yet lifted the team with the 26th-highest payroll in the majors ($73.6 million) into a showdown with baseball royalty.
The Reds, meanwhile, head into an off-season that could be eventful. Baker has led Cincinnati to the play-offs in three of the past four years but the Reds failed to advance each time. They fell to the San Francisco Giants in five games - after leading 2-0 - in the division series in 2012 and were swept in the same round by Philadelphia in 2010.
This time, they didn't even make it that far. Cincinnati spent most of the season as the third team in a three-way race with the Pirates and the Cardinals for the NL Central title. Cueto, who made three trips to the injured list this season with a strained lat, was pressed into service when projected starter Mat Latos discovered bone chips in his right [throwing] elbow.
At the time, it seemed like an upgrade. It wasn't. The Pirates made it 3-0 on Tuesday on a sacrifice fly in the third by Pedro Alvarez, and Cueto was pulled when Starling Marte doubled with one out in the fourth. Marte sprinted home on local boy Neil Walker's double off reliever Sean Marshall, and Walker scored on a fielder's choice by Byrd to make it 5-1.
When Martin hit a drive to left off Logan Ondrusek in the seventh, the party seemingly unthinkable for a team that lost 105 games in 2010 began. Martin's long ball marked only the second multi-homer play-off game in team history. Bob Robertson hit three in game two of the 1971 NLCS.
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