The Pittsburgh Pirates will participate in their first postseason game in 21 years when they play host to the Cincinnati Reds in Tuesday’s National League wild-card game.
Pittsburgh secured home-field advantage by sweeping a three-game series in Cincinnati and the winner of this one-game round will meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round.
The Reds are in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, but staggered down the stretch with five consecutive losses to match a season-worst skid.
Cincinnati planned to start Mat Latos but scratched him because of elbow soreness and will instead go with Johnny Cueto, who has a stellar 8-2 mark with a 1.91 ERA in 13 career starts at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
Cueto has excelled in two starts since returning from an injury and has allowed one earned run and eight hits in 12 innings. He blanked the Pirates on one hit over eight innings on May 31 and then went on the disabled list for the second of three times this season. Cueto is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have opted for left-hander Francisco Liriano, who struggled against the Reds this season with an 0-3 record and 3.70 ERA in four starts.
Despite not winning against Cincinnati this season, Liriano has been fantastic at home, sporting an 8-1 mark and 1.47 ERA in 11 outings.
Though he set a career best for victories, Liriano struggled in September with a 1-2 record and 5.14 ERA in five starts. He had a sharp outing against Cincinnati on Sept. 20 when he gave up two runs and three hits in eight innings while receiving a no-decision.
On the offensive end, Pittsburgh standout Andrew McCutchen (.317 average, 21 homers, 84 RBI and 27 steals) had an MVP-caliber campaign this season while Reds star Joey Votto (.306 average, 24 homers, 73 RBI) set a franchise record by reaching base 316 times.
INDIANS GET DOWN TIME
Of the many reasons the Indians won an American League wild-card spot with a stunning September surge, manager Terry Francona joked that it had nothing to do with his final days in Boston.
“We stayed away from chicken and beer,” he cracked. “That helped.”
Francona was typically jovial on Monday, a day after Cleveland completed an improbable 10-0 run to finish the regular season and earn its first playoff appearance since 2007. As the Indians awaited the winner of the Texas-Tampa Bay tiebreaker, a relaxed Francona discussed his team’s superb chemistry, resiliency and a roster devoid of superstars but loaded with selfless players.
Francona also poked some fun at himself, alluding to the end of the 2011 season when his Red Sox collapsed with a 7-20 record in the last month.
Francona guided Boston to two World Series titles, but parted ways after the team’s historic fold. Later, the team’s clubhouse was characterized as an out-of-control fraternity house with players drinking beer, eating chicken and playing video games during games.
Now, after five months of ups and down in Francona’s first season with Cleveland, the Indians put it all together and went 21-6 in September, playing error-free ball over the last 90 innings to reserve a place in October.
They had to be nearly perfect the final two weeks, and the Indians took advantage of a favorable schedule by sweeping the White Sox, Astros and Twins.
“I’m not surprised. I’m pleased,” Francona said of his team’s impressive closing kick. “That’s the way we have to play, and like I said all year, I’m OK with that because it’s baseball and it just goes to show you that when you play the game right, the sum of all our parts can be a pretty good team and that’s not such a bad way to come to work.”
WILD SUCCESS RATE
Five wild-card teams have won the World Series, including the 2011 Cardinals and the 2004 Red Sox, before baseball changed the playoff format last year, creating a wild-card playoff. Baseball wanted to put a premium on winning a division title and make it harder for a wild card to advance by adding the extra game.
It seems to become a question every October — rest or rust? Detroit had a long layoff before last year’s World Series and Tigers hitters lost their timing. Boston and St. Louis each have several days off this week before hosting the wild-card winners.