Cincinnati Reds vs. Pittsburgh Pirates: National League Wild Card Game holds chance for redemption

PITTSBURGH – If CNN took a national poll asking who will win the National League Wild Card Game Tuesday night and mapped the state-by-state vote, there probably wouldn't be a single state in red - not even Ohio.

The poll on WCPO.com suggests it would be hard to find many fans in Cincinnati who think the Reds can beat the destiny-darling Pirates (8:07 p.m. EDT on TBS).

So who will be red-faced after the game - the team that seemed prepared to charge to another NL Central title this year until injuries got in the way, or the fans who seemed to lose all faith in them during their listless five-game losing streak to end the season?

Can red stand for red-emption?

It can if Reds hitters can find the stroke they showed at PNC Park two weekends ago when they outscored the Pirates 19-12 in winning two out of three.

It can if Johnny Cueto, whose last postseason start ended after eight pitches, can flash his ace’s form after spending most of the season on the disabled list.

A Reds' win would erase the ugly memory of their season-ending debacle and send them to St. Louis for a chance to redeem themselves for last year's collapse in the NL Division Series.

There wasn't this much opportunity for redemption in the finale of Breaking Bad.

At least the Reds sounded confident about breaking out of their final week slump after taking batting practice at PNC Park Monday night.

They managed just eight runs in losing their last five games.

“We just got to go out there and get some base hits and get some timely base hits,” said manager Dusty Baker. “That’s what’s been eluding us – the timely base hits.”

“You gotta just keep going,” said right fielder Jay Bruce. “It’s cliché and all that, but you can’t try to reinvent anything now.”

“You can look back to the last series we had here,” said third baseman Todd Frazier. “We won two out of three – could’ve won three out of three. We made couple of mistakes. It’s all about being fundamentally sound. It’s all about preparing yourself for this kind of atmosphere, for this kind of game.”

The Reds are facing a tough left-hander in Francisco Liriano (16-8), who is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park this year. But the Reds have handled Liriano better than most. He is 0-4 against them this year with a 3.70 ERA.

While Liriano has been murder on left-handers Bruce (0-for-11), Joey Votto (2-for-10) and Shin-Soo Choo (6-for-31 counting previous seasons in the American League), Reds right-handers have hit him pretty well.

Frazier (3-for-9) has homered twice off Liriano this year, and Ryan Ludwick (4-for-9), Brandon Phillips (3-for-11), Devin Mesoraco (2-for-6) and Zack Cozart (2-for-10) don’t figure to bail out on the lefty, either.

Cueto (5-2) is psyched about starting, Baker said, after having to leave Game 1 in last year’s NL Division Series in the first inning with a strained oblique.

Cueto has been almost as successful in PNC Park as Liriano. He is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in his career there and he is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh.

"I don't know how to explain it," Cueto said. "I just do my job."

Cueto missed most of the season with back problems but has been solid in two starts since his return on Sept. 16. He gave up one run in 12 innings against the lowly Astros and Mets.

Cueto is 1-0 against the Pirates this year, giving up one run and three hits in 12 1/3 innings in two starts in April and May.

Cueto is starting because Baker’s announced starter, Mat Latos, has a bone chip floating in his elbow. Baker said he hopes Latos can start Game 1 of the Division Series Thursday in St. Louis if the Reds win Tuesday night.

A third question – will the Reds put Billy Hamilton on the wild-card roster – will be settled Tuesday morning. Teams have to announce their rosters by 10 a.m.

It’s hard to imagine the Reds wouldn't include speedy weapon since he’s 13-for-14 on stolen base attempts since his September call-up and he figured prominently in one of the Reds’ season highlights at PNC Park on Sept. 20.

That’s when the Reds, trailing Liriano 5-2 going into the ninth, scored three runs off reliever Mark Melancon. Hamilton raced home from second with the tying run on Mesoraco’s infield hit, and Votto’s 10th-inning homer won it.

Besides, Baker may not activate any other starting pitchers, loading up on position players and relievers instead.

Phillips seemed OK Monday a couple of days after a foul ball created a egg-sized welt on his shin. He didn’t play Sunday.

Pittsburgh fans, celebrating their first postseason appearance in 21 years, may make Ludwick long for the peace and quiet of Great American Ball Park last week. 

But home field didn’t mean anything to the Reds - or Giants - last year. 

“It would have been nice to play in Cincinnati,” Phillips said, "but regardless of that fact, it’s going to be the same thing playing here – we’ve got to get the win.”

McCutchen hit in head during batting practice

Pirates star Andrew McCutchen gave his team a brief scare on Monday when a ball hit him in the head during batting practice.

The center fielder and MVP candidate was shagging fly balls when an unnamed teammate distracted him. McCutchen says when he turned his head a ball off the bat of Jordy Mercer hopped off the ground and caught him around his right ear.

McCutchen walked off the field under his own power and said he should be fine to play Tuesday night, He declined to identify the teammate who tried to get his attention, claiming with a smile that he's "no snitch."

NOTES: The Reds and Pirates split the first 16 games of their season series before the Pirates swept the final three games  at GABP. “I kinda like being familiar with the opposition,” Baker said. “At least you got an idea what they’re going to do to you and an idea what you have to do to them. The hardest part about this game is when you don’t know somebody” … Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Cal Ripken stood behind the batting cage during BP Monday night … Pirates backup infielder Josh Harrison is a Cincinnati kid who went to Princeton High and UC. Asked who his friends will be pulling for, Harrison said: “I know they’re rooting for me. They might be lifelong Reds fans, but at the end of the day I think they’d much rather see me happy” ... The NL Division Series will have a 2-2-1 format this year, with Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) at the Wild Card winner's ballpark.

Greg Noble wrote this story from reports by John Popovich and Bryce Anslinger in Pittsburgh and the Associated Press.

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