happy pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates are officially in the postseason. The real postseason, not manufactured phoney-baloney game seven atmosphere without the build-up postseason. (Not that the manufactured atmosphere isn’t awesome. It most certainly is. But let’s call a spade a spade.) The atmosphere was exciting enough to entice one fan to jump from the Clemente Bridge out of sheer joy. Which is dumb. And dangerous. Please don’t do that.

Last night I wrote that not all games are lost by goats or those who might carry blame. The Pirates continuing presence in the 2013 season owed a lot to Francisco Liriano, who simply mowed down Reds hitters while his Pirates built a lead.

Dave Cameron at Fangraphs looked at the key to Liriano’s success – his devastating slider. As Cameron points out, it was the pitch he threw more than any other, going to this hard breaking ball even more than his 95 mph heat.

It is a nice luxury to have, a mid-nineties fastball you can reach back for when setting up your unhittable slider. As nasty as the pitch is, it doesn’t work if he can’t keep the hitters honest with the heat. Oh by the way, don’t forget about his change up, which is also filthy and mean and totally unfair.

The whole package together, combined with a new found ability to keep pitches in the zone (or at least appearing as though they’re in the strike zone) gave the Pirates one of the most effective starters in the National League – a guy they signed for basically nothing.

If Francisco Liriano wasn’t a tough enough opponent for the Cincinnatti Reds, the fans at PNC Park more than did their part to make the proceedings even more difficult for the visitors. Now, pitchers like Johnny Cueto have thrown in high-energy environments before. I’m sure some of the Caribbean World Series crowds or Winter League finals where the whistling, singing, swaying croweds did much worse than the tried and true “last name singsong ala Darryl Strawberry‘s unofficial anthem.”

But, as Jeff Passan of Yahoo! points outs, when the crowd starts chanting and then Cueto inexplicably drops the ball on the mound and then — on the very next pitch! — the Reds starter serves up a big home run to Russell Martin…well, it definitely looked like Yinzers got their man.

“You may think I was scared when that ball dropped,” Cueto said. “The ball dropped. You maybe can think that’s what happened, but the ball dropped.”

He’s probably right, but as Pirates catcher John Buck told Passan, the fans bought it and that’s what matters. Everybody in Pittsburgh was having the time of their lives.

Except Joey Votto, that is. Poor Votto had a miserable night at the plate, going down on strikes twice and three times making outs with runners on base. It was the worst timing for the National League’s best hitter, a man oddly dogged by criticism in spite of his overwhelming excellence at the plate. Some, as pointed out in a profile of the Reds slugger by Jorge Arangure of Sports on Earth.

Arangure wonders if maybe, just maybe, some doubt crept into Votto’s head and maybe, just maybe, he grew tired of the critics who slam his lack of RBIs. Which I, and even Jose himself, cannot and do not buy.

As Arangure himself points out, Francisco Liriano just posted one of the best seasons in history against left-handed batters. He held them record low numbers, thanks to his filthy slider and plus fastball velocity. If Joey Votto looked overanxious, it could only be because his copious research indicated it was the only way he could expect to be effective in his at bats. If Joey Votto thought he stood a better chance by trying to be aggressive against fastballs early in the count.

Unfortunately for Votto and the Reds, it didn’t work out that way. Votto got his first pitch fastball in the first inning and promptly grounded out. Remember: this isn’t some get-me-over offering, it was 95 up and in on Votto’s hands. The next two encounters saw Liriano start Votto with sliders, one he fouled off and another he watched for a strike.

In fact, that first pitch fastball in his first AB was the only fastball Votto saw all night long. Three straight sliders for the strikeout in the fourth inning (with two runners on base) and four straight sliders in the sixth inning, with Votto swinging over the final offering for the K.

Again, credit where it is do. Liriano pitched well and the Pirates hit three mistakes into the seats. They won this game, no matter how Brandon Phillips wants to frame it. A great night for Pirates baseball, who earn the right to face the Cardinals in the NLDS. You can bet the battle-hardened Cards won’t be shaken by any crowd noise. Emotionless robots built for murder don’t have nerves. Sorry, Yinz.

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