At the All-Star Game, I asked Joey Votto about the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was back when everyone was still skeptical about the Pirates, or at least a little skeptical given their second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012.
"They're 100 percent legitimate," Votto said. He then brought up Francisco Liriano. "For all the complaining people do about player contracts and players getting hammered for bad one-year deals or bad 10-year deals or whatever, there isn't enough being written about Francisco Liriano," Votto said. "That guy is so valuable to them."
Prophetic words, because on an electric night in Pittsburgh, Pirates fans filled PNC Park with cheers, chants and the pure joy of watching October baseball for the first time since 1992. Andrew McCutchen’s mom sang the national anthem, former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek threw out the first pitch, and then Liriano threw down the gauntlet.
He retired the first nine Reds in dominant fashion, needing just 28 pitches. When Marlon Byrd and then Russell Martin homered off Reds starter Johnny Cueto in the second inning, the park exploded in a symphony of exultation and derisive chants of "Cue-to, Cue-to." It was good to be a Pirates fan.
After the Pirates made it 3-0 in the third, the key at-bat of the game arguably came in the top of the fourth. Liriano hit Shin-Soo Choo to start the inning and Ryan Ludwick singled, bringing up Votto, a chance for the Reds to have a big inning and get back in the game.
The Reds' three best hitters are Votto, Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, which is why this was a tough matchup for them: Liriano destroyed lefties this season, holding them to a .131 average with just two doubles and no home runs allowed. Basically, he turns left-handed hitters into pitchers. But this is Votto, the guy who knows how to work the count and wait for his pitch better than any hitter in baseball. Back in July, he talked about Liriano's fastball/slider combination and how much better he looked than when he had faced him when Liriano was with the Twins. He thought Liriano had simplified his approach, focusing more on just those two pitches, at least to left-handed hitters.
Slider, fouled off; swing and miss at a slider low in the dirt; slider off the plate, swing and miss. Three sliders, goodbye Votto.
The Reds did manage to score a run in the inning, and Todd Frazier cracked a long foul ball that just missed being a three-run homer and giving the Reds a lead, but that inning was the Reds' missed opportunity.
After that, things fell apart for Cincinnati. Cueto was lifted in the bottom of the fourth, Neil Walker, who had one extra-base hit off a left-hander all season, doubled off Sean Marshall, Brandon Phillips booted a routine double-play ball, getting one out instead of two and allowing a run to score. It was 5-1 and Liriano was just too good this game.
He went seven innings, allowing just four hits and one walk, striking out five. Choo, Votto and Bruce went 1-for-8 with a hit batter and four strikeouts. The pitcher who had trouble throwing strikes during much of his Twins career threw 64 strikes in his 90 pitches.
It's interesting to note that the stars of this game were Liriano and Martin (who added a second home run), two offseason under-the-radar free-agent signings by general manager Neal Huntington; Byrd, the astute late-season pickup from the Mets acquired to fill a hole in right field; and then veteran Jason Grilli, the guy trusted as the closer despite having only five career saves beforehand, who finished it off in the ninth. This team is built around likely National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, but Huntington's deals (last year's closer Joel Hanrahan was traded for setup man Mark Melancon) added the depth the Pirates teams of the past two years lacked.
After the game, Martin had a grin as wide as the Allegheny as he was interviewed on TV. He looked around the ballpark and said, "Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere late into October."
The Pirates have been the story of the year in baseball. It gets to continue, at least for a few more games, and hopefully for more than a few more games. On to St. Louis, the next step in the long haul to the World Series.