Pittsburgh Pirates’ Marlon Byrd smiles as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the second inning of the NL wild-card playoff baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Andrew McCutchen was in mid-answer when teammate A.J. Burnett stuck a bottle of champagne inside the jersey of the star Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder and turned it upside down.
“Feels good,” McCutchen said with a laugh as the bottle emptied, further drenching his already soaked uniform. “I could get used to this.”
So could the city he plays in.
After an absence of two decades, playoff baseball is back in Pittsburgh. And it’s not going anywhere for a while.
The Pirates are heading to St. Louis for the NL division series after drumming the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in the NL wild-card game on Tuesday night, nine innings of dominance that also served as a coming out party for a franchise eager to escape a generation of misery.
“There are mile markers along the road to get to the place you want to get to,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “There’s nobody in there that doesn’t want to win the World Championship for the Pirates organization.”
Pittsburgh is one step closer after dispatching the Reds. The NL Central champion Cardinals await. A.J. Burnett will start for the Pirates against St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright in Game 1 on Thursday.
Andrew McCutchen (22) walks to the field before the National League wild-card playoff baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
“They know us, we know them,” McCutchen said. “It’s going to be a battle. We want it to be a battle.”
At least the Cardinals 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.
The veteran left-hander showed up at the park on Tuesday in a suit with his suitcase packed. The message was simple: the season wasn’t over yet.
“He had the expectancy to win,” McCutchen said. “When he showed up with his suit on, that got me hyped up.”
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 looking up.
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 playoff 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.
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.
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