Liriano, Martin, Byrd pace Pirates win

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One down, 11 to go!

Hey, based on the superb performance of the Pirates last night, why not think big? Why not think World Series? Why not think winning the World Series, which would require 11 more victories.

It's an outlandish goal, but it is for every team every year. It is arduous task, winning three consecutive series against the best in baseball. But based on what transpired at PNC Park, why not dream?

If it happens, none of the remaining wins will likely go as smoothly or as easily as the Pirates' 6-2 dispatching of the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card playoff game.

What a humiliation for the Reds, who lost their fourth straight to the Pirates. What an embarrassment for Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto, who couldn't get out of the fourth inning. And what another repeat performance from Reds manager Dusty (No Urgency) Baker, who, just as he did in Saturday's crucial Pirates win, allowed his starter to pitch much too long.

But this isn't about what the Reds didn't do. This is about what the Pirates did.

In front of a crowd so pumped someone might have thought this was the first time in 21 years they've been able to cheer for the home time in the postseason, the Pirates were primed to near-perfection as they got the kind of starting pitching they had reason to expect and the kind of home-run power they had no reason to expect.

The win moves the Pirates on to the National League Division Series, where they will face top-seeded St. Louis, the team that beat them out for the Central Division title. The first two games are set for Busch Stadium, Thursday evening and Friday afternoon. The best-of-five series will return to PNC Park for games three and, if necessary, four on Sunday and Monday.

There were heroes all around for the Pirates, but three stood out:

* Francisco Liriano: Based on his season-long performance, his exceptional record at PNC Park and the remarkable ability he has shown to dispatch left-handed hitters, the strength of the Cincinnati lineup, Liriano was the clear and obvious choice to start this game. He did everything that was expected of him. In seven innings, he allowed one run, four hits and one walk, while striking out five.

He retired the first nine batters he face, and after allowing a run in the fourth, closed down the Reds on two hits over his final three innings. Other than when the run scored in the fourth -- a hit batsman and two singles -- he never allowed a runner to third base.

He was in complete control. He struck out Joey Votto, the Reds best hitter, twice, and held the middle of the Cincinnati lineup to one hit in nine at bats. The lone hit, the run-scoring single, was the first Jay Bruce had off Liriano in his career.

* Russell Martin: The light-hitting catcher channeled his inner Babe Ruth. Or was it Bob Robertson? Martin, who batted .127 (8-for-63) in September, homered in the second and again in the seventh. He also singled in the third. He became the first Pirates since Robertson did it in the 1971 NLCS against San Francisco to homer twice in a postseason game.

What a show of power for Martin, who was limping home offensively. But no one ever doubted his tremendous value to the team as a Gold-Glove caliber catcher and in an MVP vote of fans he'd probably finish second to Andrew McCutchen. If he didn't finish first.

* Marlon Byrd: He was the acquisition the Pirates needed, the player who help put them over the top after he joined the team following a trade with the New York Mets in late August. He got it all started in the second inning, when he drove what appeared to be a hanging changeup from Cueto into the left-field seats to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.

With McCutchen on first in the third inning and the Pirates leading, 2-0, Byrd drove a violent shot at directly at shortstop Zack Cozart that could not be handled and skipped to the outfield as McCutchen romped to third. Inexplicably, it was called an error. But it put McCutchen in position to score on a sacrifice fly by Pedro Alvarez.

After the Reds scored their second run on an eighth inning homer by Shin-Soo Choo off Tony Watson, Jason Grilli came on to pitch the ninth and his showing was as heartening a sight as anything that preceded it. The recently struggling closer retired the Reds in order on seven pitches. He struck out the dangerous Bruce, retired Todd Frazier on a fly out to left and Cozart on an infield grounder.

The crowd roared -- which is pretty much what it had done the entire game -- the Pirates celebrated. Oh, what a night!

bobsmiziksports


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