The Pirates haven't hosted a playoff game since 1992. For Pirates fans, the excruciating wait comes to an end tonight as their hometown club plays host to the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card elimination game.
All it took was winning 8-3 on Saturday against, you guessed it, the Cincinnati Reds. After securing their first winning season and playoff appearance in 21 years, can the Pirates make their playoff dream last more than one game?
The rise to success had been building for the Pirates over the last three seasons, but major second-half collapses occurred in 2011 and 2012. This year, Hurdle and company finally righted the ship (couldn't avoid that one). They went on to win 94 games and finished 2nd in the NL Central, just 3 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. How?
Through a healthy dose of pitching, pitching, timely hitting, and more pitching.
Their team ERA of 3.25 ranks 3rd in all of baseball, while their opponents are only hitting .238 against them. That mark is good enough for 2nd-best in baseball. They've relied heavily on the veteran arms of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, while also turning to the three unexpected arms (two of them prospects) of Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole – all of whom have performed admirably in such extensive roles.
The success of the Reds this season mainly boils down to pitching, much like it does for the Pirates. Their team ERA of 3.38 ranks 4th in all of baseball, just behind the Pirates. Opponents have hit .236 this season off Cincinnati, which ranks 1st in the majors, and just ahead of the Pirates.
Andrew McCutchen has done what he normally does: produce. His line of .317/.404/.508 coupled with the success of his ball club has Cutch right in the middle of the NL MVP debate. The Pirates have also enjoyed healthy production from up and coming outfielder, Sterling Marte, posting numbers of .280/.343./.441 with 41 stolen bases. And then, there's Pedro Alvarez. Despite striking out 186 times this season and posting a batting average of .233, he's been a force in the middle of Pittsburgh's lineup – hitting 36 home runs while driving in 100 runs. With a little plate discipline and consistency, Alvarez could be much more lethal than he already is.
For the Reds, this is their third playoff appearance in the last four seasons. They won the NL Central in 2010 but were swept in three games by the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series. They missed the playoffs in 2011 but won the division again in 2012.
After taking a 2-0 series lead against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, they went on to lose the final three games in a row at home, and were eliminated from the playoffs again. Something tells me they have something to prove this postseason.
The success of the Reds this season mainly boils down to pitching, much like it does for the Pirates. Their team ERA of 3.38 ranks 4th in all of baseball, just behind the Pirates. Opponents have hit .236 this season off Cincinnati, which ranks 1st in the majors, and just ahead of the Pirates. Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake have emerged as solid options behind their ace, Johnny Cueto.
Veteran pitcher Bronson Arroyo (at 36-years young, the only Reds' starter over the age of 27) has been the model of consistency and durability, while prospect Tony Cingrani has done more than expected in his 18 big-league starts this season.
On the other side of the diamond, it's been production from the usual suspects: Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce – combined with Shin-Soo Choo, who happens to be having a career year in his first season with the Cincinnati Reds.
Both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati rank below the league average in team batting, at .245 and .249 respectively. Both teams are where they are because of very strong and consistent pitching, while mixing in a bit of timely hitting. It has been a complete team effort from both clubs, but all stats go out the window tonight in this one-game playoff.
Cincinnati will send Johnny Cueto to the mound and the Pirates will counter with Francisco Liriano. The game will be played at PNC Park, where the Pirates went 50-31 this season. Pittsburgh also handled themselves better on the road than the Reds did, posting a 44-37 record compared to the 41-41 mark set by Cincinnati.
On paper, this match-up is pretty even. The Reds' have more power in their lineup than the Pirates do, but the Pirates get to play in front of their fans, including some fans who weren't even alive the last time the Pirates hosted a playoff game. The energy in PNC Park will be special and it's hard to think that won't play a factor. The winner goes on to face the Cardinals.
I see the Pirates locking down the Reds and earning themselves at least another series. I see a 6-2 victory, and a fan base rewarded for their 21-year wait.
After witnessing the majority of a painful two decades from afar, how could any neutral fan wish for anything else?