MLB: NL Wild Card-Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates

Sometimes, the other team is just better. It doesn’t always take a major gaffe or singular mistake in a crucial moment. Sometimes, from the start of the game until it is all but in doubt, one team plays better.

Johnny Cueto wasn’t exactly good last night but the Pittsburgh Pirates did not waste any of his mistakes. They hit the early mistakes of Johnny Cueto out of the park and they took advantage of a shaky Sean Marshall. It could have been worse but it was more than enough as the Pirates move on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.

Two home runs from Russell Martin and a big shot from Marlon Byrd provided more than enough offense given how well Francisco Liriano pitched. Liriano pitched just as he has all season long – unhittably well, particularly against left-handed batters. The Reds started three lefties, which seems odd until you remember they have no alternative. Would anyone on this Earth start a game with one of Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto, or Jay Bruce on the bench?

A small-yet-vocal contingent of Reds fans might suggest going without Joey Votto is a good idea. Those people are what we like to call “wrong.” Votto looked awful against Francisco, striking out twice including a big out in the fourth inning, when the Reds mounted their only real rally. With two on and nobody out, the Reds best player went down on three pitches. Not his finest hour but there Reds simply aren’t playing tonight if not for Joey Votto’s nearly unparalleled excellence over the previous 162 games.

The atmosphere around PNC Park was electric all night, making it much easier to regard this as a game the Pirates won rather than one the Reds lost. A fourth inning intentional walk sticks out a little but this victory for the Pirates came because they pitched and put runners on base early and often.

I come back to something I wrote earlier today: it doesn’t really matter how, the Pirates just needed to win. Francisco Liriano had all three of his pitches working, earning 17 swinging strikes while Johnny Cueto displayed little or no command. And that was that.

The Pirates now face the daunting task of beating the St. Louis Cardinals. The National League Yankees, the team that (quietly?) lead baseball in wins, despite starting rookie pitcher after rookie pitcher and completely reshaping their bullpen – as recently as last week! There is no more formidable opponent in baseball right now, and the feel-good Pirates have their work cut out for them.

But that doesn’t begin until Thursday. For now, the Pirates can loudly celebrate their first playoff appearance since 1992. They can enjoy it and revel in the tremendous enthusiasm put on display by their fans tonight. They will again host on Sunday, when the NLDS shifts scenes for Game Three. By the looks of it, Pirates fans won’t be satisfied after dipping their toes back into the playoff waters.