Francisco Liriano will start for the Pirates tonight at PNC Park.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wild-card games, or any elimination game in baseball, are a coin flip. The Pirates feel good about their side of the coin.
They will take on the Cincinnati Reds at 8:07 p.m. today at PNC Park behind Francisco Liriano, who rediscovered his ace-level stuff in his first season in the National League.
"I like the guy on the mound," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
With good reason. Liriano finished the regular season with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts. That number drops to 1.47 in his 11 home starts, where he went 8-1 and held opponents to a .174 batting average. He is part of a staff that has a 2.93 ERA at home, the second-lowest mark in the major leagues.
"We've pitched appropriately and according to our ballpark," Hurdle said. "It's not part of the pitching plan, but it's talked about as well. If you're going to make mistakes, you want to get the ball driven to the left-center field gap."
Liriano also matches up well with the Reds, whose lineup boasts left-handed threats in Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce at or near the top of the batting order. Left-handed Liriano has held left-handers to 17 hits in 130 at-bats this season, only two of them for extra bases. Left-handers have a .321 on-base plus slugging percentage against him.
"I've been kind of surprised in myself and the spot that I'm in right now," Liriano said. "It's been a great year for me."
Gerrit Cole will be at the ready in case Liriano struggles early or gets hurt, or in case the game goes deep into extra innings.
Liriano will face a worthy opponent in right-hander Johnny Cueto, who in 851/3 career innings at PNC Park has a 1.90 ERA. He has a 2.37 career ERA against the Pirates.
Cueto has made only 11 starts this year because a strained lat muscle sent him to the disabled list three times. In his two most recent starts since returning, he allowed two runs, one earned, in 12 innings and struck out 10.
"I feel normal," Cueto said in Spanish, with Reds assistant trainer Tomas Vera interpreting. "I feel back to like I've been pitching the whole year, like my career has been. I feel like I've been pitching the whole year."
The winner of the game advances to play the St. Louis Cardinals at 5:07 p.m. Thursday at Busch Stadium. The wild-card contest has a Game 7 feel to it, but Hurdle said he wants to avoid changing his style too much and throwing off his players.
"There might be a situation where you pinch-hit maybe an at-bat earlier," Hurdle said. "I also believe there needs to be some continuity to things you've done to keep the players in rhyme and rhythm to what they're accustomed to. The first 9-1-1 I shoot out, they're going to feel. It might be appropriate."
The Pirates went 11-8 against the Reds this season, including a sweep this past weekend at Great American Ball Park, but outscored them by only two runs (73-71). In the three-game sweep, the Pirates held the Reds to six runs.
"I don't think that there's ever a time in pro sport that you don't win and you don't walk away with something," Hurdle said. "How much that something plays out, I can't quantify. Truthfully, nothing matters what happened over the weekend and really the last 162 don't matter either from either team."
Hurdle dismissed the notion that the winner-take-all atmosphere could weigh on the club. Andrew McCutchen said he gets nervous before every game -- "If you're not nervous, you shouldn't be playing the game" -- and doesn't expect that to change tonight.
"If anything, I think I'll be more excited," McCutchen said. "I think the anticipation of the game probably is a little more nerve-wracking."