Andy Van Slyke kept yelling, imploring him to move in, but Barry Bonds stood stone-still. The best player in Pittsburgh Pirates history, Bonds’s one weakness was an outfield arm that rated roughly average, not a true liability really, just not the standout asset he had everywhere else on his scouting checklist. He’d never taken kindly to people telling him how to play the game, though. For that matter, he’d never taken kindly to Andy Van Slyke. In this situation, at this moment, Barry Bonds was not going to let the ball get over his head to end the game, and he felt he could throw out Sid Bream from where he was, if it came to that.

He should probably have been right. Sid Bream took a tentative lead from second base, ginger on a knee operated on more times than he cared to remember. When Francisco Cabrera hit a ground ball through the hole on the left side of the infield, Bream took off at full steam, but full steam, for Bream, was still not very fast. Bonds charged, came up cleanly and fired the ball toward home plate. A moment later, the Pirates’ 1992 season—and Bonds’ Pirates career—was over. Bream slid past the tag. The ball got there late. Infuriatingly, Van Slyke had been right.

Bonds took winning baseball and heartbreak with him after that season. His Giants won 103 games in 1993, but missed the playoffs with a final-day loss to the lowly Dodgers. They went to the World Series in 2002, but could not hold a six-run lead in Game 6 and lost the Series in seven. He hit hundreds of home runs and won five MVP awards in San Francisco. The Pirates, along with their fans, just settled into the western Pennsylvania ground like coal dust, firequently swept away, then forgotten.

That started to change in 2011, but in a torturous kind of way. The Pirates were in first place as late as July 26, but an 18-41 finish prevented them even from finishing respectably for the first time since 1992. In 2012, they teased a little longer, and crashed a little softer: 62-46 became 79-83, a 17-37 finish. It was clear they were no longer overwhelmed, no longer Mr. Hilltop after Gene Wilder’s Frankenstein removes the clamp. They just needed one last infusion of talent, one more player to deepen their roster and give them a real chance to sustain their excellence all season.

It turned out to be Francisco Liriano. It wasn’t at all clear that he would be the savior when he first showed up. In fact, his initial contract with Pittsburgh never did get signed, as a home accident left him with a fractured right elbow and forced both sides to agree to a much smaller, more conservative deal. It’s inaccurate to paint over history and treat Liriano as a focal point for Pittsburgh. They paid more for the services of Jonathan Sanchez ($1.375 million) than for Liriano ($1 million), and with Liriano shelved, Sanchez got four starts in April. (They were ugly.)

Once Liriano debuted on May 11, though, he became the Pirates’ top starting pitcher, and began to drive optimism that this time, they might hold up and finish the deal. Since then, Liriano has made 26 starts, struck out 163, walked 63 and notched a terrific 3.02 ERA.

Meanwhile, Andrew McCutchen found his groove. Already a star, he became a very real MVP candidate in 2013. He made contact significantly more this season, a shade over 80 percent of all swings finding their mark instead of 77.5 percent. He hit for average, drew 78 walks, lost some home runs but gained enough doubles to offset that and kept running and playing a solid defensive center field. McCutchen isn’t Bonds-level dominant, but he’s more well-rounded.

Those two alone would not have allowed Pittsburgh to finish the deal, win 94 games and secure the first post-season baseball in Pittsburgh since the Bonds (and Doug Drabek) exodus. As good as each has been, it would be thoroughly misleading to suggest that the Pirates are successful thanks to any small number of players. Rather, what they are is a collection of 25 players who have all found roles and thrived, under the surprisingly sage hand of Clint Hurdle, their manager.

The bullpen is deep, and has two solid options from each side of the rubber in the late innings. Gerrit Cole came up mid-season and ensured that the rotation would not suffer much for the loss of Wandy Rodriguez. Neil Walker, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin provided the roughly average production expected of them. Rookie shortstop Jordy Mercer provided average production no one expected. The Pirates lack weaknesses, which helps mitigate their dearth of concentrated strengths.

That’s a fun team to root for. The first competitive Pirates team in 20 years was bound to be a national darling, but what makes them such a hit, a team the community has been able to embrace so fully on a local level, is the blend of star power and positive contributions farther down the roster. The more guys a team has whom fans can like and celebrate, the more enmeshed they will seem with the city. So it is with the Bucs. They’re thoroughly likable.

The Cincinnati Reds are less easy to like, but even more fun to watch. Though their roster is more top-heavy, they have some electrifying talent. Johnny Cueto, erstwhile Luis Tiant impersonator, heads up their rotation, along with Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo—whose deliveries are certainly not derivative, because no one would recommend pitching that way—and Homer Bailey, whose two no-hitters in the last 13 months give him perhaps the postseason’s best fourth-starter bona fides. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo each reached base over 300 times this season. Through age 26, Jay Bruce’s 10 most comparable players, per Baseball-Reference, are:

  1. Tony Conigliaro
  2. Tom Brunansky
  3. Reggie Jackson
  4. Jack Clark
  5. Jeff Burroughs
  6. Troy Glaus
  7. Roger Maris
  8. Boog Powell
  9. Sammy Sosa
  10. Barry Bonds

And Billy Hamilton. Don’t forget Billy Hamilton.

Hamilton has played in 13 games and stolen 13 bases in the Major Leagues. He’s not merely the fastest player in baseball, but the fastest in years, perhaps the fastest ever. At this time of year, as a pinch-runner who only comes in when his speed has the ability to change the game, Hamilton is the most exciting player imaginable.

And Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman is to pitch speed what Hamilton is to foot speed. He no longer hits 104 miles per hour with his fastball, but he’s simply devastating, and watching a heater come out of his hand remains exciting even now that triple-digit numbers on the stadium scoreboards aren’t guaranteed.

These are the two teams who will meet, in PNC Park in Pittsburgh, for a one-game Wild Card showdown. The winner will earn the right to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. Here’s how this game might go:

The Starting Pitchers

Liriano and Cueto take the mound, which is as good a showdown as the teams can offer. Liriano is a nightmare of a matchup for the Reds, though, whereas Cueto doesn’t present a special challenge to the Pirates.

Liriano’s dominance over left-handed batters this season (.131/.175/.146 in 130 at-bats, two doubles, no homers, 37 strikeouts against seven walks) is well-documented, and historic. The Reds’ three best hitters (Votto, Choo and Bruce) are all left-handed, and none has a below-average platoon split. Choo retains a sound approach, but his swing doesn’t work against lefties. Votto draws walks, but strikes out a lot more against southpaws than against righties, limiting his overall value. Bruce keeps a lot of his power, but his strikeout-to-walk ratios go haywire.

Not only that, but Liriano is a beast at home, and it’s not by coincidence. He’s been deadly on lefty batters, and it’s lefty batters who otherwise thrive at PNC Park. Having Liriano in Pittsburgh is like having Justin Masterson in Fenway Park: A starter with a large platoon split can blossom beautifully if his home park plays into that split, in his favor.

Cueto isn’t left-handed, and the Pirates’ best hitters (McCutchen, Marte and Pedro Alvarez) hit righties plenty well, even though two of them bat from the right side. That said, Cueto is a great all-around pitcher. His strikeout skills aren’t in line with other elite starters, but he avoids walks and keeps the ball on the ground. He’s been quite good since returning from a lat injury that sidelined him for most of the season, and unless that or some other injury intrudes, the Reds can count on a solid outing from him. Cueto doesn’t get knocked around when he’s right.

That’s the one caveat that must be attached to Liriano, by the way. There’s been some debate over whether Liriano should face the three lefties in the Reds order two, three or four times before Hurdle starts playing matchups and uses a presumably stacked bullpen. That debate is baseless. Liriano doesn’t force managers into dilemmas like that. He makes the decision for you. Of his 26 starts this season, 12 were dominant—with Game Scores over 70, an almost single-handed win. Six, though, were catastrophes, with Game Scores under 40, leaving the Pirates no hope of a win. He runs very hot and cold, and the question to be answered won’t be the precise moment at which to remove him, but whether he wins or loses the game for the Pirates while he has the ball.

The Starting Lineups

Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates – Optimal Starting Lineups

Reds

Pirates

Brandon Phillips – 2B

Starling Marte – LF

Shin-Soo Choo – CF

Neil Walker – 2B

Todd Frazier – 3B

Andrew McCutchen – CF

Joey Votto – 1B

Pedro Alvarez – 3B

Devin Mesoraco – C

Marlon Byrd – RF

Jay Bruce – RF

Justin Morneau – 1B

Ryan Ludwick – LF

Russell Martin – C

Zack Cozart – SS

Jordy Mercer – SS

Johnny Cueto – SP

Francisco Liriano – SP

As usual, I’m forsaking the probable in favor of the preferable. The actual lineups are unlikely to be this far from the paths the two managers have beaten throughout the season. They ought to be, though.

Phillips has a small and straightforward platoon split. He’s not great, but he’s a decent bet to get on base against a lefty once or twice. Choo, who usually leads off, shifts down in this scenario, part of a migration downward for each of the Reds’ three lefty studs. That complicates the decision if Hurdle is weighing removing Liriano during the fourth trip through that gauntlet, and it also lets the righties who can hit Liriano better get an extra plate appearance or two, catching the right side of inning breaks.

Frazier hasn’t batted third to start a game all season, but with Liriano on the hill, his power against lefties (illustrated by a .235 ISO and 18 extra=base hits in 157 at-bats) merits that chance. Mesoraco (.321/.386/.487 against lefties this season, in an admittedly small sample) has batted fifth just once, but belongs there again.

The tragedy of the matchups for the Reds is that, while their lefties are able to hit for average, draw walks and line doubles, their right-handed bats rely disproportionately on home runs for value. That doesn’t play in PNC, where right-handed batters encounter a park factor for homers of 62—it’s 38 percent harder for them to homer there than in an average environment. It’s not impossible that, with a southpaw on the mound and no shortage of raw power, Frazier or Mesoraco could overcome that obstacle. The odds are not in their favor, though.

Morneau has generally cleaned up for Pittsburgh of late, with Alvarez batting sixth. That’s defensible under normal circumstances, but since neither should be allowed to face a left-handed pitcher in this game (Jose Tabata, John Buck, Gaby Sanchez and Josh Harrison are available as pinch-hitters), I want Alvarez and his big power that much higher in the order. I toyed with starting Garrett Jones over Marlon Byrd in right field, but Jones will make a fine pinch-hitter for whichever of the bottom three batters in the order first sees a high-leverage plate appearance. If he starts, the Pirates don’t have as strong a left-handed option for that situation.

The Jones dilemma introduces another necessary consideration, something for which both managers must prepare. Because this is the National League, the pitchers bat, and that might mean, as early as the second or third inning, that lifting the pitcher for a pinch-hitter is the right call. That’s tough for a lot of skippers to wrap their heads around. The Cardinals lost any chance of beating the Giants in Game Seven of the NLCS last season when manager Mike Matheny failed to replace Lance Lynn, batting with the bases loaded in a close game.

Both teams need to carry enough extra bats to make that a real option. That should be no problem in either case. I enumerated the Pirates’ options above, and the Reds have a lot of similar players: Xavier Paul, Chris Heisey, Ryan Hanigan, Derrick Robinson, Jack Hannahan. The Pirates’ bench strength is superior, but in this setting, it will be all about deployment, not talent.

That possibility, along with Cueto’s recent injury history and Liriano’s implosion risk, also demands that each team carry a tandem starter option, perhaps two. If I’m Pittsburgh, I keep Jeff Locke ready—no sense giving away the advantage conferred by having a lefty face the Reds just because Liriano exits. The Reds will be without Mat Latos altogether, thanks to a bone chip. Homer Bailey pitched Friday, so this game would mark normal rest for him, but he’s probably Cincinnati’s Game One starter if they advance. The best guy to have on retainer could be Mike Leake.

In any event, these offenses face tough tasks, especially if the managers opposing them start going to their respective wells of match-up bullpen arms.

The Bullpens

Lately, bullpens get more than their fair share of digital and physical ink when teams make runs like the ones the Reds and Bucs are on. I won’t pretend these guys are still anonymous, unsung heroes. Chapman is one of the Reds’ biggest stars. Southpaw set-up man Sean Marshall cost the team significant talent in trade prior to 2012, but has been well worth it. J.J. Hoover and Logan Ondrusek back them up, and Alfredo Simon and Sam LeCure handle longer relief duty. Manny Parra rounds out the group. He’s a lefty specialist, really, a guy you’ll only see if Hurdle pulls the trigger and pinch-hitsa with Jones sometime before the seventh inning. 

The Darren O’Day type, the shutdown righty whom Andrew McCutchen can’t hope to hit, is absent from this pen, but even the lefties can get out batters on either side of the plate. If Cincinnati can get a late lead, this relief corps can hold it.

Pittsburgh’s group is even more famous. All-Star closer Jason Grilli’s bizarre entrance (Grilli Cheese Time, or something) is not terribly intimidating, but it’s charming. So is Mark Melancon’s shark shtick. Tony Watson and Justin Wilson (differentiate them from one another, I dare you) are the lefty-killers, and because there are two of them, Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo shouldn’t see a right-hander all night. The rest of their relief corps is built for endurance, not a sprint, which has served the team well as Hurdle has stretched his pen to its limit this year, but won’t be of much help in this game. The top four guys are the ones who can have an impact, so the hope should be that Liriano can hand it straight over to them.

The Possible Outcomes

I do think Liriano will pitch deep into the game, and pitch well. I also think, though, that the Reds (whether via a Cueto gem or a string of short outings) will keep the game close down to the wire. At the end of the game, I expect the score to be 4-3 or 2-1. I don’t like the way things shape up for the Pirates if that happens.

The Reds have a better bullpen, for my money. They have Hamilton, who becomes a major weapon if the tying run so much as reaches base. If the game is tied, Baker might withhold Chapman for an inning or two, and that could be the Pirates’ opportunity. But if Cincinnati gets a lead at all, it will be shutdown time. In the meantime, Hurdle has to use his two lefty relievers to keep Votto or Choo (or ideally, even Bruce) from getting a good matchup in an important spot. That sounds a lot easier than it might turn out to be.

I’m picking the Pirates, with the structural advantages in play translating into a three-run win or something. If it’s close, though, my prediction swings the other way, so my confidence level is quite low, scarcely more than 50-50. That’s why this contest should be a blast.

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