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For the seventh time in 12 days, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates will take the field opposite each other, this time in a one-game National League Wild Card playoff to see who will confirm their date with the NL Central Division-winning St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
CIN – Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82 ERA, 1.06 WHIP)
PIT – Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP)
Cincinnati Reds (90-72)
The Reds were an early season favorite to win the Central, and with good reason; Cincinnati will be making their third postseason appearance in four years, which includes two division titles.
When any franchise has this much sustained success, the wonder is how long their window will be open to win a championship. There aren’t many teams that enjoy the perennial success that the Reds have since 2010, so the opportunities to win have to be made the most of. After being swept out in three straight in 2010 and collapsing after taking the first two games in San Francisco last year, they need to take that next step. It starts with a win over the Pirates.
There has been concern that Cincinnati “faded” down the stretch. They only managed to go 14-12 in September, but a pro-rated 162-game pace of that mark is about 88-74, or very close to their season mark.
- Johnny Cueto will be starting the game for the Reds, after having his start on Sunday pushed back following their loss on Saturday. He’s visited the disabled list on three separate occasions this year for a back injury and has made just two starts since July 1st. However, those two starts came in the second half of September and he looked effective, including reaching 99 pitches on the 23rd against the Mets. His velocity is normal and his body language seemed in order.
- The bullpen has been strong all season long, finishing fourth in ERA (3.29), T-4th lowest mark in blown saves (16), and first by a wide margin at 9.36 K/9 IP. Should Cueto be forced early with any sort of injury, it will fall on the shoulders of the bullpen to keep the game close. The match-ups later in the game will be important to keep an eye on; the additions the Pirates made has given them depth on the bench from guys that used to be their regulars, like LHB Garrett Jones, RHB Jose Tabata and LHB Travis Snider. These are all hitters with home run power – as Jones, Tabata and Snider have all homered in their last six games – and the bullpen match-ups will be interesting once the Pirates get to their bench. One last thing to keep in mind: Aroldis Chapman’s ERA at home this year was 0.66 but was 5.96 on the road.
- Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo finished 1st and 2nd respectively in on-base percentage among qualified National League hitters. That said, the health of second baseman Brandon Phillips is something to monitor. With LHP Francisco Liriano starting, the assumption is Phillips would be hitting 4th behind Votto. Phillips fouled a ball of his left shin on Saturday which left him barely able to put any weight on it, but the expectation is that he will start after X-rays came back negative. If he can’t drive in the runners ahead of him, the Reds will struggle to score runs as their lineup thins out after Jay Bruce hitting 5th.
Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)
For the first time in 21 seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates are headed to the MLB Postseason. By virtue of their win on Saturday against Cincinnati, the Pirates locked up home-field advantage for the one game Wild Card playoff against the Reds.
It’s not often this is said, but a lot of things went right for the Pirates this year. Looking up and down the roster, one sees: Pedro Alvarez – tied for NL Home run crown with 36; A.J. Burnett – 5th in Ks in the NL and a 3.30 ERA; Francisco Liriano – 3.02 ERA and striking out over a batter per inning; Andrew McCutchen – hit .317 and was one of two NL players with 20+ HRs and 25+ SBs, keeping himself in the MVP conversation.
- Francisco Liriano has seemingly resurrected his career in Pittsburgh. After several unimpressive seasons, Liriano compiled his best season since 2006, striking out over a player per inning and finishing with a 3.02 ERA. However, since August 1st, Liriano’s ERA is 4.28 and he’s given up four or more earned runs in four of his last ten starts and he’s gone five innings or less in three of his last seven.
- Much like Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh bullpen has been consistent for most of the year finishing 2nd in NL ERA at 2.89 and the third-fewest blown saves at 15. Things have not been so rosy for their big arms as of late, however: In their last 15.1 combined innings pitched, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have allowed 9 earned runs (5.28 ERA) after giving up just 17 earned runs in their previous 105.2 innings pitched (1.45 ERA).
- Look for Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen to be the game breakers that the Pirates need them to be. Both are solid power/speed players and when facing a pitcher like Johnny Cueto, who traditionally doesn’t give up a lot of home runs, they’ll to be able to scratch out runs by forcing the defense to make plays. The left side of the Reds’ infield will suffer if Brandon Phillips’ range is limited, so there may be a few hit-and-runs and bunt-for-hits coming from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle – assuming the right guys are on base.
With all of the above in mind, there are three specific things to look for in the NL Wildcard play-in game on Tuesday night:
- The health of Brandon Phillips.
- The shutdown ability of the back-end of the Pirates bullpen, should it get to that point.
- The manager battle between Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker and Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle (which match-ups they’re looking for and plays from the dugout like hit-and-runs).
Liriano may or may not be the pitcher he was in July, and the same goes for Melancon and Grilli.The Reds may be a safe bet on the road if Liriano is unable to provide Pittsburgh with a quality start.
Tue, Oct 1 – 8:00 PM – TBS
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