Two teams—the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates—will enter PNC Park in the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday. One team will leave with its World Series aspirations still intact, while the other will be left to deal with the death of those very dreams.
While the Pirates held an 11-8 advantage over their division rivals during the regular season, they've outscored the Reds by a total of three runs in those 19 games. When these two teams meet, every pitch and every at-bat is a crucial one.
With the action quickly approaching, let's take a look at the keys for each team finding success and living to fight another day.
*Don't fret if you can't be in front of a television set on Tuesday night starting at 8:07, as you can still catch all of the action live as it unfolds, for free, courtesy of our friends at TBS, who will be streaming all of the action online. Click here to watch what promises to be an exciting and memorable night of MLB action.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Despite his relatively unimpressive numbers during the regular season—.226/.327/.377, 15 home runs and 55 RBI—Russell Martin remains the most important roster addition that Pittsburgh made before the season began.
Not only has he done an incredible job of handling Pittsburgh's pitching staff—with the second-lowest catcher's ERA (3.16) among qualified backstops in 2013—but he's kept the opposition's running game in check, throwing out 40.4 percent of would-be base stealers, the third-best mark in baseball.
With Francisco Liriano and his sometimes erratic control on the mound and a handful of Reds (especially Billy Hamilton) capable of causing issues on the basepaths, Martin is going to have to be at the top of his game defensively.
Martin has struggled at the plate against Cincinnati—and at PNC Park—during the regular season:
|Vs. Reds||14||.235||.316||.708||4 (2)||8||5/8|
|At Home||64||.211||.304||.641||16 (6)||30||25/50|
His career numbers against Reds starter Johnny Cueto are even worse, with Martin managing only one hit in 11 at-bats with an RBI and a pair of strikeouts—an .091/.091/.182 slash line. That's not going to cut it with his team's season on the line.
While his offense is secondary to his defense, getting something—anything—out of Martin when he comes to the plate could be the difference between an appearance in the National League Division Series and a disappointing end to a terrific season.
By now you've probably heard about Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto's sterling career numbers against Pittsburgh (a 2.37 ERA in 21 starts) and at PNC Park (a 1.90 ERA in 13 career starts).
Those are some impressive numbers.
But this is a pitcher who missed 10 weeks of the regular season with a pulled muscle in his side and has made only two starts since the end of June.
While his performance in those two starts was excellent—an 0.75 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 12 innings—those starts came against the Astros and Mets, a pair of teams with offenses that resemble those you'd find on mediocre Triple-A clubs, not major league playoff teams.
Which begs the question: Can the Reds really count on Cueto to be at the top of his game?
He's made three trips to the disabled list this year alone and is the same pitcher who was forced to leave Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS against San Francisco after facing only one batter due to a strained right oblique.
Really, it's a crapshoot at this point.
If he's on and can avoid injuring himself, Cueto has the pure stuff and mentality to shut down the Pirates offense. If not—and you have to wonder just how much rope manager Dusty Baker will give him—it could be a long night for the Reds.
Few players have taken to Pittsburgh like Francisco Liriano, who breathed new life into his career this season. He is likely going to win the National League Comeback Player of the Year award and pick up some votes in the NL Cy Young Award race as well.
Liriano has dominated on the mound at PNC Park, going 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA and 0.96 WHIP over 11 starts in front of the Pittsburgh faithful. He's equally dominant when it comes to facing left-handed batters, holding them to an absurd .131/.175/.146 slash line.
Cincinnati's three most important bats—Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto—are all lefties, and the trio has struggled badly against Liriano over the course of their careers:
To be fair, Liriano hasn't been lights-out against the Reds this season, pitching to a 3.70 ERA in four starts, but neither his ERA nor his 1.11 WHIP against them is terrible by any means. Overall, the Reds are hitting only .193/.276/.352 against him.
He doesn't have a great postseason track record, having allowed five earned runs and seven hits over 7.2 playoff innings with the Minnesota Twins, and Liriano is always a candidate to have bouts of inconsistency with his command.
But if he can maintain a level head and stay on top of his pitches, he's capable of shutting down a potent Cincinnati lineup.
He's not going to start the game, but Billy Hamilton could be the X-factor that changes the course of events as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh head into the later innings.
Hamilton has gone 3-for-8 against Pittsburgh this season, including 3-for-3 on stolen base attempts, and scored—you guessed it—three runs.
While Russell Martin has done a fantastic job of shutting down the opposition's running game, he's been unable to stop Hamilton, who swiped two of those bases against him (his third came against backup catcher John Buck).
In his seven pinch-running appearances this season, the 23-year-old has scored two game-winning runs, a game-tying run and a go-ahead run in extra innings.
If he winds up on first base late in the game, he could add a wild-card-winning run to that list as well.
Not only did Pittsburgh sweep Cincinnati in a three-game series on the road to clinch home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card Game, but the Buccos won seven of their last 10 games, outscoring the opposition 50-33.
They've done that without much in the way of production from their best player, Andrew McCutchen, who hit .156/.341/.250 over his last nine games (he sat out the last game of the season against the Reds).
In front of a packed house that has waited two decades to see the Pirates in the playoffs, momentum is clearly in Pittsburgh's favor. They must take advantage of the circumstances before them and keep the crowd in the game if they are to advance to the NL Divisional Series against St. Louis.
Cincinnati heads into Pittsburgh in a bit of a tailspin, riding a five-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates at Great American Ballpark. During that streak, the Reds have been outscored 21-8.
Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto have hit a combined .188 over their last five games—a drastic dropoff from the combined .273 mark that the fearsome foursome put up over the course of the entire regular season.
If the Reds have any chance of advancing to the next round of the playoffs, at least two of those bats—specifically Bruce and Votto—need to emerge from their funks in a hurry.