Originally posted on StraitPinkie.com  |  Last updated 9/30/13
Six months. 182 games. For the Reds, 1,511 innings played; for the Pirates, 1,505. A season, a marathon, complete. And yet, the legacies of those long, arduous seasons, all come down to one. One game. One moment. One chance. Both the Reds and the Pirates will be teetering on the plank in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night when they face off in the NL Wild Card Game –a sudden death, winner-take-all matchup that determines who continues to play beneath the bright lights of October, and who goes home, only nine innings removed from a season of destiny, suddenly, cruelly, crushed. Bryan already previewed the game here, offering his perspective on the x-factors and matchups that will decide this do-or-die tilt. This space hopes to go next-level, providing an in-depth look at the statistical storylines of Tuesday’s showdown between the Pirates and the Reds. These are simply the strait facts: the top 10 bits of information that could have a huge impact, or at the very least, help you look smart on Twitter. 1.) Francisco Liriano versus left-handed batters. Francisco Liriano takes the mound for the Pirates on Tuesday, and by all indications, that’s not good news for the Reds. Liriano has completed a historic season against left-handed batsmen, allowing a meek line of .131/.175/.145 and giving up all of zero home runs and two extra-base hits in 138 plate appearances against them this season. That’s absurd. And, in case you haven’t noticed, lefties are important in Cincinnati. Former MVP Joey Votto suffers slightly against left-handed pitching, hitting just .251/.377/.447 versus his normal averages of .305/.435/.491. Shin-soo Choo doesn’t suffer slightly; he completely crumbles. His numbers against southpaws fall to .215/.347/.265, and he’s only scored 14 of his 107 runs when a left-handed pitcher starts the game. With the Reds’ best on-basemen slightly neutralized by left-handed pitching, Jay Bruce also loses opportunity. He’s batting .246/.291/.443 against lefties, which isn’t an extreme fall from his normal numbers, but only 30 of his 109 RBIs come when LHP take the mound, obviously influenced by the fact that Choo and Votto are getting on base much less often. If Liriano can continue his dominance of batters on the left-side, and keep Choo and Votto off the base paths, the path to victory for Cincinnati looks thorny to say the least. 2.) Cueto has an ax to grind.  Johnny Cueto spent more time on the disabled list than the mound this season, making him largely an unknown commodity coming into Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh. But don’t be surprised if he has a little extra motivation to appear healthy against this Pirates team. Cueto’s first trip to Pittsburgh this season came on April 13, when he pitched 4.1 innings before getting injured. He didn’t return to the baseball field until May 20. Cueto started in Pittsburgh again on May 31, still fresh off his first disabled-list vacation. Though he lasted 8.0 innings this time, pain resurfaced, and he wouldn’t see action again until June 16th. But before he went down, Cueto was standing tall on the mound at PNC Park. His combined stats in Pittsburgh this season may portend good results for the Reds on Tuesday: 12.1 IP, only three hits allowed, nine strikeouts, and one earned-run. So if Cueto can stay in the game, he might make it a game.   3.) Reds on the road. The Reds play like an elite team at Great American Ballpark in the Queen City, with a home record of 49-31. On the road, they seem decidedly closer to mere mortals. This season, Cincinnati finished 41-41 on the road, making their trips away from the friendly confines of Southern Ohio a coin-flip in the win-loss column. This holds at PNC Park as well, where they finished the season at 4-5. The stars of Cincinnati also seem to perform at PNC with coin-flip consistency, some good, some bad. On the cleaner side of the coin, Joey Votto has hit .276/.512/.517 in Pittsburgh this season, with 14 hits, eight walks, and seven runs in only 43 plate appearances. Even more impressively, Brandon Phillips has hit .407/.485/.741 at PNC Park, including three home runs, nine RBI, and 11 hits in 27 at-bats. That said, it isn’t always pretty in Pittsburgh. Jay Bruce bats .175/.195/.300 in the three-rivers city, with more strikeouts (11) than hits (7). And the Shin-Soo Choo-train stutters to a stop in industrial Pittsburgh, with a season line of .167/.306/.200 and only three runs scored in seven games. So in handicapping the Reds chances on Tuesday, it’s practically a question of heads or tails. 4.) Is Brandon Phillips on the slide?  In traditional circles, Reds second-baseman Brandon Phillips has been much celebrated for topping 100 RBIs, the first Reds 2B to do so since Joe Morgan helped fuel the Big Red Machine. Meanwhile, Brandon Phillips appears to have run out of gas. In 24 games in September/October, Phillips has hit .211/.276/.263 with only 1 HR, 4 RBI, and 9 runs scored. His move to second in the order hasn’t exactly gone to plan either. In that spot of the lineup, he’s striking out 19.3% of the time; that strike out rate was at 13.9% when he hit cleanup. Reds fans can find hope in the fact that despite all of this, Phillips finished the season batting .302/.337/.460 against the Pirates, his best line against any division opponent –a division that includes the Cubs and Brewers, no less.   5.) Pirates holding down the ship. Historically, pirates are notorious for their ability to find homes away from home –to travel, invade, and conquer. But these Pirates much prefer to stay home on the ship in Pittsburgh. The Pirates boast a 50-31 record at PNC Park, a ridiculous win-percentage of .617. Part of this can be attributed to face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen feeling comfortable at home, hitting .337/.425/.537 in front of his own fans with 57 runs scored (a step up from his road totals: .298/.381/.478 with 40 runs scored). Tuesday night’s ace, Francisco Liriano, also seems like a different person in Pittsburgh. On the road this season, Liriano appears incredibly normal, with a record of 8-7, an ERA of 4.33, a WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) of 1.443, and an opponent batting average of .261. Stop salivating, Cincinnati. In Pittsburgh, Liriano pitches lights out. In PNC Park, Liriano is 8-1 with an ERA of 1.47, allowing a lowly WHIP of 0.964 and an opponent batting average of .174. So even for a Pirate, there’s no place like home.   6.) Are the Pirates a different team than they were in June? All of that said, the Pirates haven’t dominated opponents in cruising to the NL Playoff Race. In early summer, they were the media darlings of baseball, the underdogs suddenly leaving more celebrated teams in their wake. Through June, they were 51-30 (.630) with a run-differential of +45 runs, showing the signs of a team that could pitch, that could score, that could defend. Ever since, they’ve barely kept the ship above water. From July 1 onward, the Pirates are 43-38 (.531) with a +12 run-differential, barely above staying even. The biggest factor in that fall from greatness has been the offense, which aside from Andrew McCutchen, hasn’t kept pace. Since September 1, the Pirates have scored three runs or less in nearly a third of their games. Proponents of momentum in sports will cite the Pirates recent sweep of the Reds as evidence that they are hot “when it matters.” But a larger sample size shows a team still in decline from a red-hot spring and early summer. 7.) Is the speeding, streaking Andrew McCutchen slowing down? Andrew McCutchen currently stands as the favorite to take hope a wide-open NL MVP Award race, the face of a franchise that erased two decades of depressing memories, exorcising ghosts of missed-playoffs past. He is the lone spark plug to a mediocre offense, an outstanding defensive outfielder, a threat to steal bases at any moment. But McCutchen might be finding himself in a rare bump on his road to greatness. After a hot streak that kept his team afloat, his last 14 games have been paltry, producing a .216 batting average and only three extra-base hits. He also has zero stolen bases in the last two weeks after stealing 27 on the season. To be fair, this is a small sample size, likely influenced by his .194 BAbip (Batting Average on balls in play), which is way below his season norm of .353. But it still counts. And a one-game playoff is the ultimate small-sample size. If McCutchen is still slumping as Tuesday passes, so too might pass the chance for Pittsburgh to play more games in October. It’s also worth noting that McCutchen is on a season-long slump against the Reds. He hits just .232/.338/.435 against them.   8.) Riding the Red roller coaster. Consider the final 24 games of the Cincinnati Reds’ season: 6 games from Sept. 3-Sept. 8: 5-1 (vs STL and LAD); 21 runs-scored, 14 runs-against; 3.5 R/game, 2.3 RA/game. 6 games from Sept.9-Sept. 15: 2-4 (vs. CHC and MIL); 20 runs-scored, 25 runs-against; 3.3 R/g, 4.2 RA/g. 6 games from Sept. 16-Sept. 22: 5-1 (vs. HOU and PIT); 41 runs-scored, 18 runs-against; 6.8 R/g, 3 RA/g. Final 6 games of regular season: 1-5 (vs. NYM and PIT); 11 runs-scored, 23 runs-against; 1.8 R/g, 3.8 RA/g. An optimist in Cincinnati will see these numbers and say, “They must be due a great six-game run!” A pessimist (or a Pittsburgh-optimist) will see this extreme inconsistency and resign to this: “Which Cincinnati Reds team am I about to see?”   9.) The season series. In 2013, Pittsburgh owns the advantage, winning 11 of the 19 games between the two teams. However, the run-differential (PIT-73, CIN-71) points to a closer race –a race that would usually result in a closer-to-even split given those numbers. Oddly enough, despite the above statistics on the Pirates at PNC and Reds on the road, this contest has been tight in Pittsburgh. The Reds are 4-5 at PNC, but also boast a run-differential of +11 and won four of their last six visits to the river-city further north. Despite the recent sweep in Cincinnati, the Pirates will not have forgotten their last two series against the Reds at home. Because the Reds came out on top. This time, coming out on top means survival. 10.) History.  The Wild-Card-Game format is still in its infant stages, so there’s no reason to rely on history in deciding which team has the upper hand. But there have been six play-in games since 1995 (a seventh will happen tonight in Texas). This do-or-die scenario is nearly identical to the situation facing Cincinnati and Pittsburgh on Tuesday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, those six games resulted in the home team winning five times. The only exception will be familiar to Reds fans. In 1999, the Reds hosted a play-in game in Cincinnati. In a cruel twist, the New York Mets left triumphant, ultimately riding that high to the Subway Series against the Yankees. Cincinnati wouldn’t return to the postseason for 11 more years. So the Pirates aren’t alone in seeking revenge on years of bad memories and wallowing in the bottom ranks. The Reds remember their last sudden-death game. And they’ll seek redemption.   And yet, with that desire for redemption, with this data amassed in thousands of innings, after months and months of baseball, it all comes down to nine more innings, to one more night, to one more game. To win or go home.
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