Friday, October 4, 2013

Pirates Bring the Swag, Reds Bring the Drag

By Jeff Kallman

This one's going to take a good while for the Cincinnati Reds to live down. No matter how far the Pittsburgh Pirates go from Tuesday's National League wild card game.

Losing six of their final eight, including five straight to the also-ran New York Mets and then to the Pirates was bad enough. But the way the Pirates and their fans bastinadoed the Reds 6-2 Tuesday night was ridiculous enough that you swore Joe Morgan, the Hall of Famer who factored big on the ancient Big Red Machine, couldn't decide whether to look disgusted or heartbroken in his PNC Park seat.

Nobody likes to hear or deploy "choker." Nobody wants to think a team like this season's Reds gagged on the pressure, whether or not the pressure was of their own making. Unfortunately for the Reds and their fans, second baseman Brandon Phillips deployed it after the loss. And it's probably even money whether Reds fans will be more outraged than his teammates by it.

"We deserve everything. We choked. We did. I don't care how people really feel, or my teammates, how they feel about what I'm saying right now, because it's the truth. Either you win or you go home, and I'm going home, and the last place I want to be is on my couch. I don't want to do that. But it happened today and it sucks, man. I mean, it's terrible."

This is the guy who, just days earlier, was asked to pick his all-swag team (that's "swag" as in "swagger," not perks, dollars, and bling) and found his own club lacking in the swag department except for himself. Now, after the Pirates showed a lot more swag without necessarily being fools about it, Phillips didn't single out anyone else on his own club for an apple in the throat. But he still hit the brakes and backpedaled as fast as his mouth could travel:

"What message am I sending? It's not a message that I'm sending. I mean, I choked. I didn't do nothing today. I mean, what'd I do today? Tell me, what did I do? Did I get any hits, did I get any RBIs? I choked. I didn't do nothing to make the team win. And, like I said, it's on me. It's not the team's fault, it's my fault. I had opportunities to really come through for the team and I didn't do that."

The fact that Phillips played despite a lingering swelling above his left shin from a foul ball in the last regular-season game is, according to him, entirely beside the point.

Maybe the Reds should have seen their humbling coming in the second inning, apparently. When their starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto, bothered most of the season by a sore and sprained lat muscle, pitching the wild card game only because of Mat Latos's pitching elbow bone spurs, surrendered a leadoff bomb to Marlon Byrd—picked up from the Mets in an August deal—and the PNC Park crowd let him have it with a singsong "Cue-toooo! Cue-toooo!" chant. The short, but husky right-hander who entered the game 8-2 lifetime at PNC Park was rattled almost the moment it began.

First, Cueto dropped the ball with Russell Martin checked in at the plate. Then, Cueto actually delivered the ball to the plate. And Martin—the former Dodger whom the New York Yankees let walk to free agency last winter — delivered it over the left center field wall. "For the rest of Johnny Cueto's career," tweeted Yahoo! Sport's Jeff Passan, who was in the ballpark for the unique drop and drive, "every time he goes to PNC Park, they're going to chant 'Cue-to, Cue-to, Cue-to' the whole damn time."

It might happen elsewhere around the National League, too. Cueto probably had no real business pitching such a win-or-be-gone game after having pitched in only three previous between June and September and showing rust at assorted points in those three.

Cueto should probably be thanking Todd Frazier for helping him escape further second inning trouble. After Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano swatted his way on with a single and Starling Marte followed to set up first and second with two out, Neil Walker fouled one high off third that careened toward the stands. Frazier scampered over and dove into a camera pit to make a circus catch on it.

All this in the middle of Liriano putting on as good an impression of Sandy Koufax as a lefthander today can muster. Not only did he have the Reds resembling the Bad News Bears early and often, with his 90-mph sliders finding swift ways to avoid the barrels of Cincinnati bats, but Liriano got through the first three innings unblemished, while Pedro Alvarez fatted the lead to 3-0 with a sacrifice fly in the third.

Oh, the Reds got a little frisky in the top of the fourth after Liriano uncharacteristically plunked Shin-Soo Choo to open. Ryan Ludwick, whose return from the disabled list didn't quite galvanize the Reds as highly as they and their fans hoped, hit the first pitch on the screws for a single to left, setting up first and second for Joey Votto.

But Liriano swished Votto on three pitches. Up came Phillips on an 0-for-1 night thus far, and he popped out behind second base. Jay Bruce's single to left to send home Choo seemed like a temporary tease for Reds fans, especially when Frazier got swished for the side. The Reds, after all, were in the hole 3-0 before they hit anything past the infield.

The Pirates got even friskier once Cueto was allowed to lure Liriano into a leadoff groundout and serve Marte a 2-0 double to left. Out went Cueto, in came Sean Marshall, and into the deep regions of left field went Walker's RBI double.

Marshall took no chances with Andrew McCutchen, walking the Pittsburgh bellwether to set up the potential double play. Only he walked Justin Morneau, the stretch drive pickup from the Twins, unintentionally. That brought in J.J. Hoover, who didn't exactly beat as he swept as he cleaned, another run coming in while Byrd forced Morneau at second—after the otherwise-should-have-been double play ball bounded off the wrist of Phillips, Mr. Swag, who retrieved it almost sheepishly to throw to second. Then Hoover got Alvarez to force Byrd likewise for the side.

Two Cincinnati relievers later, Martin unloaded again, taking Logan Ondrusek in relief of Alfredo Simon over the left field wall on a full count to open the bottom of the seventh. By the time Choo parked a 2-2 service from Liriano's relief, Tony Watson, over the right field wall, it seemed almost like an excuse-me shot from a Reds offense that would finish the night on a 5-for-42 slump with men in scoring position.

"'It's very difficult to come down to one game, especially the way we played," said Reds manager Dusty Baker after the game. "We got outplayed big time."

The big time is what Liriano, signed in the offseason after a forgettable 2012 split between the Twins and the Chicago White Sox, came to the ballpark prepared to deliver, according to his mates. He turned up in a smart-looking suit. Carrying a bag packed for St. Louis.

"He had the expectancy to win," McCutchen crowed after the game. "When he showed up with his suit on, that got me hyped up."

The Reds' big bats were almost left at home. Or might as well have been. Votto and Phillips went 0-for-4 each, including a combined 0-for-6 with men in scoring position. Jay Bruce had his RBI, but also struck out twice. Ludwick did pick up three hits but had nothing much else to show for them, the catcher himself not looking close to a hundred percent since his own return.

And — just as the Washington Nationals did when they had a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of last year's division series — these Reds hitters, mostly, approached each plate appearance looking to hit 6-run homers on every swing. They were putty in a Liriano's hands, in other words. The Pirates weren't looking to hit 6-run jobs every at-bat, and Liriano didn't try striking out every man he faced on the first pitch.

"You get in this atmosphere," Martin told reporters after the game, "and hitters are going to be overaggressive; they're going to be hunting fastballs. [Liriano] has the ability to make his changeup and his slider look like fastballs. That's what worked for us. We used their aggressiveness against them by throwing off-speed pitches early in counts and getting contact like that."

Essentially, the Pirates played the kind of heads-up, heads-in baseball that helped them break their long, longer, longest nightmare of double-decades disaster. If the black-clad PNC Park crowd was in the game from the first pitch, having their first taste of postseason baseball since the last days of the first Bush Administration, well, anyone in a Reds uniform who didn't expect to have to deal with that simply didn't have his head in the whole of the game.

These Reds have found the postseason vexing since 2010, when the Philadelphia Phillies swept them out of a division series almost in a blink that only began with Roy Halladay's no-hitter. In last year's division series, when they had the San Francisco Giants down two to open on the road, they managed to get overthrown in three straight at home.

And the second guessing of Baker's don't-sweat-the-small-stuff managing style begins all over again. Is he just too much a players' manager to have his team appropriately inflamed for the big ones? Has he still not yet figured out how to manipulate his pitching staff when one big gun is wounded and the one he's compelled to start instead is rusted after a long enough disablement? Has he lost his ability to motivate as he's heightened his ability to accommodate?

The Reds will have all winter and a 2014 season to find those answers, since Baker's contract doesn't expire until then, and they could lose Choo and veteran pitcher Bronson Arroyo (whom the Pirates battered last Saturday, in his possible final start as a Red) to free agency.

Those answers may be easier to find than trying to explain how Cueto let the fired-up crowd in a road ballpark where he normally thrives get into his head and his hand. Or how to keep Phillips from running his mouth instead of the bases. Or how the Pirates brought the swag and the Reds, the drag.

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