Apparently, the Pittsburgh Pirates weren't just content with making the playoffs.
Behind a gem of a pitching performance from Francisco Liriano and a two-homer night from Russell Martin, the Pirates defeated the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in the National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park on Tuesday evening.
Taking the mound for just his third postseason appearance, Liriano was brilliant. He worked through the Reds offense with pinpoint control and accuracy. The 29-year-old lefty needed only 90 pitches to get through his seven innings of four-hit ball. He gave up only one run and fanned five Reds before giving way to the Pittsburgh bullpen.
A year after being dumped off by the Minnesota Twins and removed from the Chicago White Sox rotation, Liriano's career has found a second life in Pittsburgh. He had an 8-1 record with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at PNC Park heading into Tuesday night's contest, and he did all he needed to keep that success going.
Tony Watson worked through a rocky eighth inning that included a solo shot by Shin-Soo Choo, but Jason Grilli pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close it out at 6-2.
Catching the whole way was the veteran Martin, whose bat made as much noise as his battery-mate's arm.
The 30-year-old catcher went 3-for-4, belting solo home runs off Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto in the second inning and Logan Ondrusek in the seventh. In one game of the 2013 postseason, Martin has nearly as many hits as he had all of the 2012 postseason with New York.
In his first postseason at-bat of his 12-year career, outfielder Marlon Byrd hit a solo home run off Cueto, who gave up four runs (three earned) on seven hits in just 3.1 innings of work.
Pittsburgh also got everything it could have asked for from Andrew McCutchen. The star outfielder went 2-for-3 on the evening, hitting two singles despite the Reds' concerted efforts to limit his effectiveness. Cueto and the Cincinnati bullpen largely pitched around him and nibbled at the corners, and he was also intentionally walked.
As the Pirates' MVP candidate was drawing walks, Cincinnati's was constantly walking back to the dugout with his head hung low.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished his last game of 2013 0-for-4, including three critical outs with runners in scoring position. Liriano fanned Votto in the fourth inning with Ryan Ludwick on first and Choo on second, then again in the sixth inning with Ludwick on second base.
In the eighth, with Ludwick at second again and the Reds starting a slight rally off Tony Watson, Votto dribbled a meek ground ball to Justin Morneau for a fielder's choice. Votto's result in the eighth was repeated by second baseman Brandon Phillips, who ended Cincinnati's final rally attempt en route to his own 0-for-4 finish.
Jay Bruce's RBI single in the fourth inning represented the only hit from Cincinnati's vaunted heart of the lineup.
The Reds finish their 2013 season with six straight losses, the last four coming to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates will move from one division rival to the next, taking on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS at Busch Stadium on Thursday. A.J. Burnett will take the bump for Pittsburgh, facing Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
The Pirates' win Tuesday night was 21 years in the making. Pittsburgh's last postseason win came in Game 6 of the 1992 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves. The Pirates would subsequently fail to even reach the .500 mark over the next two decades, working through a rebuilding cycle that at times felt endless.
On Tuesday night, the Steel City finally reaped the fruits of that labor.
Player of the Game: Russell Martin (C, Pittsburgh Pirates)
One of the most amusing offseason storylines of last winter was the Pirates swooping in and pilfering Martin from the Yankees.
The truth was that New York never made Martin an offer, and the Pirates were higher on him than any other team by far. But that narrative was a nice jab about the supposed "fall" of the Yankees and rise of the Pirates.
Now? Martin may actually represent what fans once thought was a joke.
The Yankees are watching the postseason from home, and their former catcher is playing hero on his new franchise's biggest stage in generations.
Usually known as a defensive stalwart with an inconsistent bat, Martin was locked in on Tuesday. He made hard contact all night, seemingly reading the offerings before they even came out of the pitcher's hand.
Martin also called a good game behind the dish, picking the right spots for Liriano to unleash his twisting slider and, other times, having him pitch to contact.
“It's definitely a special game, and I'm going to remember it for a long time,” Martin said, per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Probably couldn't have written a better script.”
The Pirates, however, shouldn't expect many more performances like this. This is Martin's sixth postseason appearance, and only once has he hit above the Mendoza Line.
But for one evening, he outshined everyone.
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