Published September 30, 2013
| Sports Network
Postseason baseball returns to the Steel City for the first time in 21 years on Tuesday when the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Cincinnati Reds in the National League wild card game at PNC Park.
There have been 611 playoff games contested in Major League Baseball since the Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NL Championship Series. None of those games, though, have included the Pirates, who are back in the postseason for the first time since their last winning season way back in 1992.
This will be the first playoff game in Pittsburgh since Game 5 of that 1992 NLCS.
"That's a long wait," said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. "Our focus is winning games and series, and we play for each other more than anything else. But we also play for the city and the fans.
After teasing its fans with two straight second half collapses, Pittsburgh put it all together this season behind NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and ended the year, 94-68.
The Pirates spent a good deal of time atop the NL Central and were 26 games above .500 on Aug. 8. However, they were a .500 team in 48 games after that, but won five of six to close the campaign.
In fact the Pirates cemented their season by sweeping the Reds over the weekend to secure homefield advantage for the wild card game, outscoring their NL Central foes, 16-6 in the process.
"It'll be electric," Bucs outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "This city, its sports fans ... they love their sports. They've had their Steelers and their Penguins, and have been waiting on their Pirates. And here we come.
"We wanted to make sure we're able to bring it back to Pittsburgh. One game. Now it's time to get it done."
Pittsburgh had five All-Stars at this year's Midsummer Classic, but none shined brighter than McCutchen, who continued to state his case as one of the best young players in the game.
McCutchen hit .317 with 21 home runs, 84 RBI, 27 stolen bases, a .404 on-base percentage and .508 slugging percentage in 157 games. He became just the fourth major league center fielder since 1947 to have consecutive seasons of hitting .300 with a .400 slugging percentage and .500 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, joining Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.
In addition to the great McCutchen, a big reason behind the Pirates' success was the man that will be taking the ball on Tuesday, left-hander Francisco Liriano.
Signed as a free agent this winter, Liriano missed the first month of the season recovering from a broken arm, but showed no ill effects of the injury upon his return and ended the year, 16-8, while pitching to a 3.02 ERA.
Liriano, the Pirates' first postseason starter since Doug Drabek, struggled against the Reds, going 0-3 with a 3.70 ERA against them in four starts.
However, the Dominican hurler was terrific at PNC Park, where he has just one loss in 11 starts (8-1) with a sparkling 1.49 ERA.
Pittsburgh, as a team, was 50-31 in front of its fans this season.
While the Pirates are back in the postseason for the first time in over two decades, Cincinnati is making its third appearance in four years after going 90-72.
Like Pittsburgh, the Reds were in cruise control for the better part of September, despite being six games back in the NL Central as late as Aug. 10. Still and all, Cincinnati essentially knew it would be postseason bound in some capacity after taking three of four from Arizona from Aug. 19-22.
The Reds, though, enter the postseason riding a five-game losing streak after losing three straight home games to the Pirates.
"You've got to block it out," manager Dusty Baker said of the rough finish. "It's a situation where it's a new season. What you did previously, it doesn't matter. What you didn't do previously doesn't matter. Now you start the season all over."
Cincinnati has something to prove this October after an awful collapse in last year's NLDS. The Reds had won the first two games of that series with the San Francisco Giants, only to lose the final three in the best-of-five set to the eventual World Series champions.
Johnny Cueto made only eight pitches in that series before leaving Game 1 with a strained oblique and will take the ball for the Reds Tuesday following an injury-plagued 2013 that saw him make three trips to the disabled list.
"It's a really meaningful game for me," Cueto said via translator Tomas Vera. "This is the most important game of the season. All I have to do is keep doing my job. Baseball is still the same. I hope to do what I have to do."
After missing 2 1/2 months with a lat strain Cueto returned to make two starts late in the season and allowed just one earned run in 12 innings. He ended his year 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA.
"I'm going to be normal. I'm going to be the same guy," Cueto said. "What happened to me in San Francisco, I was excited. I was so emotional for the game and I think I overdid it too much. I really don't know what happened that day or how I got to that point."
As bad as Liriano was against the Reds this season, Cueto has been the exact opposite versus Pittsburgh, posting a 13-4 lifetime mark against the Pirates with a 2.37 ERA in 21 starts.
"They have a great team," Cueto said. "They have really good players so I'm going to have to do my job as well."
The Pirates took 11 of their 19 meetings with the Reds, including five of the nine matchups in Pittsburgh.
Tuesday's winner will face NL Central champion St. Louis in the NLDS beginning on Thursday.