After losing home field, Reds strengthen WC resolve
Cincinnati will play NL Wild Card Game against Pittsburgh at PNC Park on Tuesday
CINCINNATI -- One goal after another has slipped away from the Reds' grasp this past week.
First, they missed out on repeating as National League Central champions.
On Saturday, gone went the chance to be the first NL Wild Card seed and host the one-game playoff against the Pirates. An 8-3 loss to Pittsburgh -- Cincinnati's fourth straight -- assured that the Wild Card Game will be played at PNC Park. The Reds needed to win both Saturday and Sunday to take the season series tiebreaker and change that outcome.
"It would have been great to have played that first playoff game here, but we're going to have to earn it," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. "We're going to have to earn some games. We're going to have to play well enough to get baseball back in Cincinnati after the regular season."
Major League Baseball changed the playoff format last season to add a second Wild Card team in each league, and have the Wild Card teams play each other in a one-game playoff for the right to advance to the Division Series. It was done, in part, to place a bigger premium on winning the division.
Last year's first run with the new Wild Card showdown provided some twists, as both road teams won. The Cardinals beat the Braves in the NL game and the Orioles defeated the Rangers in the American League clash.
"I look at our team and just believe in our team," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "We're capable of winning anywhere. Obviously, when you go play on the road it's a, quote-unquote, tougher atmosphere. You play good baseball, you win."
The Reds showed last October that they can nullify home-field advantage -- both in a positive and negative way. In the NLDS vs. the Giants, Cincinnati won the first two games at AT&T Park. San Francisco turned the tables by sweeping all three games at Great American Ball Park to advance.
"This is one game. It depends on who gets the best-pitched game and who gets the two-out RBIs and plays the best fundamental baseball," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Tuesday is a new day. This hurts big-time, but you can't bring it back and you can't dwell on it. You've got to start over again."
At PNC Park, the Reds have gone 4-5, but took two of three last weekend in a pivotal series when the division lead was still attainable. Six of the nine games at Pittsburgh were decided by two runs or fewer, and two went into extra innings.
"I think with one game, I'm not sure there is an advantage one way or the other," Votto said. "I really think it's just almost like a flip of the coin sort of thing, and maybe because they're home, they might have a 51 percent chance and we're 49. But you know what? They proved here and we proved in Pittsburgh that home field can be a bit overrated. I'm sure that they'll feel like it's a real advantage and that's fine. But again, I've noticed over the last few years, it seems the best teams that get to the World Series, the teams that end up winning a championship, have to overcome something and typically have to overcome something on the road.
"This is our first challenge on Tuesday, and I really think, if we happen to win this game, I think it will give us a lift, and I think it will give us confidence hopefully throughout the entire playoffs and on the way to a championship that we can win no matter where it is, no matter what team."
The pitching matchup is also set, as the Reds will turn to Johnny Cueto, and not Mat Latos, to start on Tuesday vs. lefty Francisco Liriano. Latos was originally penciled in, but Baker said he has had arm soreness. Liriano is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park this season while Cueto is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in 13 career starts there.
For the Pirates, this is their first winning season and postseason berth since 1992. This is the third time in four seasons that the Reds are a playoff team, but it's their first time as a Wild Card entry since the format was implemented in 1995.
Going into the season, the Reds were viewed by many as the favorite in the NL Central with the potential of making a World Series run. At 90-71, they didn't have a poor season, but they were certainly outdone by both the first-place Cardinals (96-65) and second-place Pirates (93-68).
Ultimately, the Reds didn't really challenge for the division lead for most of the year. They were last in first place on April 22 and hadn't come within a game of the lead since May 25. Their deficit was seven games as of Aug. 8 and down to two games on Monday.
"It would have been nice to play in Cincinnati, but I feel like that we put ourselves in this situation, and it's up to us to get out of it," Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We haven't really been playing Reds baseball all year. It's been up and down. We have too much talent on our team to be in this situation. I feel like that, in my opinion, we let the city of Cincinnati down. I feel like we should have won our division."
That task got tougher on Opening Day, when left fielder Ryan Ludwick separated his right shoulder and missed four months on the disabled list. Cueto, the rotation ace, spent three stints on the DL with a strained right lat muscle, the third time costing him over two months. Primary setup men Sean Marshall (shoulder) and Jonathan Broxton (forearm) missed most of the season with arm injuries. Broxton has been done for the year since August.
But the Reds have had moments where players stepped up. Phillips took control of the cleanup spot in the lineup for Ludwick. Rookie Tony Cingrani replaced Cueto with exceptional work until a back injury took him out. Latos looked comfortable as he reliably stepped into the ace role with another strong season. Manny Parra, Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Alfredo Simon raised their profiles in the bullpen without Marshall and Broxton.
While the Reds fell short of another division title, the overall goal of going to the World Series remains alive. But to get there, they will have to overcome a little more adversity.
"I feel like right now, we're all looking forward to Tuesday," Phillips said. "And we're going to get ourselves out of this predicament that we got ourselves in to. I know we're going to do it. I hope that the fans and the city is behind us. We love those guys."