First and foremost, the atmosphere was electric. The Pirates hadn’t hosted a post-season game in 21 years, and their fans were in a mood to party. They chanted, they cheered, they hoisted cans of Iron City. Most were adorned in black, but they didn’t come for a funeral. In the end, it was Cincinnati’s season that died. Pittsburgh won 6-2 and will go on to face St. Louis in the NLCS.
What happened on the field was almost overshadowed by what happened in the stands. PNC Park was packed, and it was loud. In the opinion of more than a few scribes, it was as loud as any game they’ve covered, in any sport.
The Pirates bats were also loud. Russell Martin cranked a pair of home runs, Marlon Byrd added a third, and Neil Walker pitched in with a run-scoring double. Much of the damage came against Johnny Cueto, whose presence on the mound was especially notable in that Mat Latos was originally slated to start.
Since joining the Reds, Latos has been an April-September stud and an October dud. The right-hander imploded in last year’s ALDS Game 5, and last night he wasn’t able to take the ball with the season on the line. One person covering the game suggested Latos didn’t want the ball. Another questioned his makeup, saying Curt Schilling would have refused not to pitch.
Latos reportedly complained that his arm was “barking,” which made Dusty “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” Baker’s decision to go with Cueto defensible.
Cueto wasted little time proving the decision unhealthy. With chants of “Quay-toe, Quay-toe,” raining down on him, he lasted just three innings. Regardless of the state of Latos’ elbow — only he and team doctors know for sure — Cueto left the mound shell-shocked.
Francisco Liriano, meanwhile, was brilliant. The Pirates southpaw-slayer dominated the left-handed star power of Cincinnati’s lineup, limiting the Choo-Votto-Bruce troika to a lone single in eight at bats, with four strikeouts. His slider and changeup were big reasons why.
“He was amazing,” said Martin, who called an outstanding game for his left-hander. “You get this atmosphere and the hitters are going to be over-aggressive. They’re going to be hunting fastballs and he has the ability to make his changeup and his slider look like fastballs. That’s what worked for us. We kind of used their aggressiveness against them. But for the most part, he was just dominating down in the zone and mixing his pitches well.”
One pitch almost turned the tide of the entire game. In the early innings, Todd Frazier hit a fly ball in the direction of the left-field foul pole with two runners on base. Had it stayed fair, it would given the Reds a lead and sent the Pirates faithful into a stunned silence. Instead, it drifted foul. Moments later, Frazier grounded out and the fans roared, and didn’t stop roaring until long after the final pitch was delivered.
The energy of the crowd wasn’t lost on the combatants. After the game, players from both sides readily acknowledged it.
“The crowd was impressive,” said Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo. “It started with the chants during the introductions. It sounded like a soccer stadium for a little while. They put on a good show here, man. The fans here are hungry, and they showed it. They brought a lot of energy.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, anywhere” said Martin. “It was fun to be a part of it. To have the opportunity to play in front of a crowd like this was amazing.”
“I felt like I was a football game,” added Travis Snider. “The intensity from the first pitch, even in the pre-game warm-ups, is what we dreamed of. When we were making our run during the end of the season, we talked a lot about what this place was going to be like in October, and the fans really brought it for us tonight. This is a special time for this city and this team. Hopefully we can keep it going.”