CINCINNATI REDS (90-72)
at PITTSBURGH PIRATES (94-68)
National League Wild Card Game
First pitch: Tuesday, 8:05 p.m. ET
Line: Pittsburgh -130, Cincinnati +120, Total: 6.5
Division rivals meet for one final time this season as the Pirates host the Reds in the one-game NL Wild Card showdown on Tuesday night.
Johnny Cueto, (5-2, 2.82 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) will look to send the Cincinnati to the NLDS as he matches up against Pittsburgh lefty Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) to earn the right to advance to the next round. These two teams have seen each other 19 times this year, with the Pirates winning 11 of those games. Pittsburgh just finished off a three-game sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati, which is the reason this game is at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have been outstanding at home this season, going 50-31 (.617, 8th in majors). That is a big advantage going up against a Cincinnati team that is just 41-40 on the road. Pittsburgh has been on fire as of late, winning five of its past six games with 12 home runs, including eight in the past two games (six on Saturday). OF Marlon Byrd has been on fire, going 8-for-13 with a homer, five runs and four RBI over his past four games. In crucial matchups like this, the stars need to take their game to the next level. In last year's postseason, a five-game series loss to the Giants, Reds 1B Joey Votto went 7-for-18 (.389) with four walks and three runs. He led the majors by a wide margin with 135 walks (23 more than any other player) during the 2013 campaign, and his ability to work a pitcher and get on base (.435 OBP, 2nd in majors) could play a pivotal role in a one-game playoff.
Francisco Liriano enjoyed a terrific year for the Pirates, setting a career high with 16 victories and leading his team to a 17-9 mark (.654) in his 17 starts. He has been outstanding at PNC Park as well, going 8-1 (team 9-2) with a 1.47 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He showed that he can be a true ace with 163 K's in 161 innings overall, while allowing just nine homers all season. His 163 strikeouts rank 21st in the majors, as he had eight games where he struck out at least eight batters. However, the southpaw has had problems with the Reds this season, going 0-3 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over four starts. But in his last matchup against Cincinnati on Sept. 20, he lasted eight innings, giving up only two runs in an eventual 6-5 loss in extra innings. In his other start against them at home on June 1, Liriano allowed just one run in six innings while fanning 11. In his career, the lefty has been able to dominate the Reds top hitters, including OF Jay Bruce (0-for-11, 6 K's), 1B Joey Votto (2-for-10, 2 K's), 2B Brandon Phillips (3-for-11, 3 K's) and OF Shin-Soo Choo (.194 BA, 10 K's in 31 AB). 3B Todd Frazier has had some success though, going 3-for-9 with two home runs off him. In a one-game playoff situation, pitchers are on a much shorter leash than they are in the regular season. If Liriano is able to just go out and pitch well enough to give the ball to the bullpen with the lead, then Pittsburgh will be in terrific shape. The Pirates bullpen ended the seasons with a 2.89 ERA, ranking 3rd in the majors. Jason Grilli has been one of the keys in the bullpen, as the 36-year-old finished the regular season with a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves in 35 chances.
Cueto has missed extended time this season due to a strained lat muscle. He has made two starts since returning from the DL, throwing 12 innings while giving up only one earned run with 10 K's. For the season, his team is just 6-5 in his 11 starts, including 3-3 on the road where the right-hander carries a subpar 3.90 ERA. However, Cueto dominated in two starts this season against the Pirates, posting a 1-0 record with a 0.73 ERA and 0.41 WHIP in 12.1 innings where he allowed only one run on three hits (.079 BA) with nine strikeouts. When Cueto is pitching at his best, he can be dominating with his fastball. He has seen the Pirates batters many times throughout his career, with mixed results. OF Andrew McCutchen, who dominates many pitchers across baseball, is only 9-for-39 (.231) against Cueto in his career, striking out six times. He does have three home runs and two doubles in his nine hits in the matchup though. OF Marlon Byrd has had his way with Cueto, going 7-for-12 (.583) with a homer and 3 RBI. Cueto has shown the ability to strike out the Pirates hitters, as he has fanned OF Garrett Jones 11 times in 39 at-bats. Like Pittsburgh, the Reds have been very solid in the bullpen, posting a 3.29 ERA (7th in majors). Closer Aroldis Chapman, like Grilli, is nearly unbeatable if he has the lead going into the final inning, saving 38 of 43 chances (88%). Both of these teams understand the importance of this game, and if either starter struggles early, both bullpens could be called upon early in this game.