PITTSBURGH – Francisco Liriano showed up at PNC Park on Tuesday afternoon in a suit with his suitcase packed for a trip St. Louis.
The message reverberated through the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse. After 21 years away from the playoffs, it was time for the best story in baseball to become something more than a novelty act.
Liriano tossed seven dominant innings and the Pirates roared past Cincinnati 6-2 in the NL wild-card game Tuesday night then headed to St. Louis for the NL division series beginning Thursday. A.J. Burnett will start for the Pirates in Game 1 against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
“He had the expectancy to win,” Pittsburgh centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “When he showed up with his suit on, that got me hyped up.”
St. Louis likely won’t face Liriano until Game 3 at the earliest, though Liriano’s teammates believe his performance set the tone for what they hope is an extended October stay.
In front of a black-clad crowd savoring its first postseason game since 1992, Russell Martin hit two home runs, Marlon Byrd also connected and McCutchen reached base four times.
“We’re for real,” McCutchen said. “We’re definitely for real.”
You won’t hear the Reds arguing after Liriano continued his mid-career renaissance. The left-hander scattered four hits, struck out five and walked one to win his first playoff game and serve notice the Pirates have no intention of going quietly after spending two decades at the bottom of the standings.
“We didn’t talk about one and done, we talked about one and run,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Win one and run to St. Louis.”
Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto struggled in his third start since coming off the disabled list last month. Cueto gave up four runs in 3 1-3 innings and appeared rattled by a raucous ballpark that taunted him by chanting his name.
“He couldn’t get the ball where he wanted,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Usually he can throw that ball through the eye of a needle. Tonight he was up.”
The 36-year-old Byrd, acquired by the Pirates in late August from the New York Mets, celebrated the first postseason at-bat of his 12-year career — 1,250 games — by sending Cueto’s fastball into the seats to give the Pirates the lead in the second inning. The shot sent another jolt through an already electric crowd, which began singing “Cue-to, Cue-to” in unison when Martin stepped in.
“This is 20 years of waiting. You’re seeing it all come out in one night,” Martin said. “Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere till late October.”
The catcher followed with a drive into the bleachers in left field. The Reds never recovered, ending a 90-win season with a six-game losing streak. Three of those losses came at home against the Pirates in the final series of the season that determined the site of the win-or-die game.
“It’s unfortunately been a bit like déjà vu,” first baseman Joey Votto said. “Really disappointing.”
Baker backed Cueto before the game, saying his ace “thrives on this environment.” Maybe, but the right-hander never looked comfortable at a place where he has been nearly unhittable.
Cueto, who came in 8-2 at the ballpark by the Allegheny River, even lost his grip on the ball while standing on the mound as the crowd serenaded him.
A moment later, he lost his grip on the game.
Martin’s 405-foot shot to left-center gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead and all the momentum Liriano would require.
Signed on the cheap in the offseason after a mediocre 2012 split between the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox, Liriano has been reborn in Pittsburgh. He went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA during the regular season, his devastating slider nearly unhittable against left-handers.
The Reds proved no match. Votto went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. Jay Bruce produced an RBI single in the fourth but Cincinnati never really threatened on a night baseball officially returned to Pittsburgh.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Martin said, “but we’ve still got work to do.”
Shin-Soo Choo homered in the eighth, a drive to right field that was upheld by video review. It did little more than slightly delay a party 7,660 days in the making.
Pittsburgh’s 94-win regular season reignited a relationship sullied by years of mismanagement and miserable play. When the gates opened two hours before the first pitch, fans — most of them dressed in black at the urging of McCutchen, an MVP candidate — sprinted to their seats in anticipation of the club’s first postseason game since Atlanta’s Sid Bream slid into home ahead of Barry Bonds’ throw in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 National League championship series.
The victory sent the Braves to the World Series and the Pirates into an abyss that took an entire generation to escape.
The first step came with victory No. 82 on Sept. 9. The next came two weeks later when a win over the Chicago Cubs assured a wild-card spot. The most thrilling yet lifted the team with the 26th-highest payroll in the majors ($73.6 million) into a showdown with baseball royalty.
The Reds, meanwhile, head into an offseason that could be eventful. Baker has led Cincinnati to the playoffs in three of the last four years but the Reds failed to advance each time. They fell to the San Francisco Giants in five games — after leading 2-0 — in the division series in 2012 and were swept in the same round by Philadelphia in 2010.
This time, they didn’t even make it that far. Cincinnati spent most of the season as the third team in a three-way race with the Pirates and the Cardinals for the NL Central title. They’ll end the year as the first one heading home.
“It’s very difficult to come down to one game, especially the way we played,” Baker said. “We got outplayed big time.”
Cueto, who made three different trips to the disabled list this season with a strained lat, was pressed into service when projected starter Mat Latos discovered bone chips in his right (throwing) elbow.
On the surface, it seemed like an upgrade. It wasn’t. The Pirates made it 3-0 on sacrifice fly in the third by Pedro Alvarez and Cueto was pulled when Starling Marte doubled with one out in the fourth. Marte sprinted home on local boy Neil Walker’s double off reliever Sean Marshall and Walker scored on a fielder’s choice by Byrd to make it 5-1.
When Martin hit a drive to left off Logan Ondrusek in the seventh, the party seemingly unthinkable for a team that lost 105 games in 2010 began. Martin’s long ball marked only the second multihomer playoff game in team history. Bob Robertson hit three in Game 2 of the 1971 NLCS.
NOTES: Martin is the first catcher to homer for three different teams in the postseason. He previously connected for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 and the New York Yankees in 2012 ... Liriano is the first Pittsburgh left-hander to win a playoff game since John Candelaria in Game 3 of the 1979 World Series ... The Reds have lost four straight playoff games and 11 of their last 13 ... Pittsburgh is the first home team to win since the new wild-card format was introduced last season ... The Pirates went 10-9 this year against St. Louis. ... Byrd is the oldest player to homer in his first postseason at-bat, according to STATS.