Playoff for the playoffs: Reds-Pirates preview
It's elimination time for somebody else, as one NL Central team is leaving the playoff for the playoffs with nothing but a jilted sense of what's fair. Tonight, the Reds visit Pittsburgh to see how much better the Buccos' best season in 20 years is going to get.
Holy hell, Joey Votto is having a Joey Votto-esque season, hitting over .300, socking dingers, feeding that OPS so it stays nice and over .900... he's one of those players for which any GM would lunge across a table to get a signature. In a playoff series, he's the kind of stoic, consistently unshakeable behemoth or could really drop the hammer on an inexperienced pitcher and make him wonder what he's doing with his life.
Then there's free agent-to-be Shin-Soo Choo, having a career year just in time to be wooed by teams with outfield needs as soon as his postseason journey ends. Choo, Votto, and Jay Bruce lead the Reds' in plate appearances and hits, and have combined to form an unholy trinity of run production.
They are supplied by Brandon Philips, a top second baseman in the game, when he isn't laughing maniacally. But even when he is, too. At 32, Phillips had his lowest BA since 2008, his lowest OPS ever, and only generated 1.6 WAR for the Reds, down from 4.9 in 2011 and 3.8 in 2012, but he still got the All-Star nod because he remains one of the most effective infielders in the game and knows how to stop a base runner.
Of course, the Reds have yet to fill out that bench and bullpen with the final playoff roster decisions, and according to their beat writers, they are airtight.
In the home dugout, the Pirates less evenly distributed offense. NL MVP Andrew McCutchen's captaining of this lineup is inarguable, and I'm not even sure why you'd want to. His slash line (.317/.404/.508), his defense, his dancing, and his smile are enough to clear the toxicity out of any room. The Pirate with the closest OPS to Cutch's (.911) is Starling Marte, and he's 127 points behind him.
Pedro Alvarez is the chief pure power source, leading the team - and the NL - 36 home runs. But as far as scoring runs go, the Pirates are ranked like... well, like a team with one manically productive center fielder, one NL leader in home runs, and six other guys who are putting in some timely .210-.250 hitting, except for Starling Marte, who is young and still developing and hitting .280 and leading the league in caught stealing.
Most of the Pirates lineup is playing in their prime, 24-29, with the exception being Clint Barmes, who I think it's likely no one is building around.
The Reds are sending out Johnny Cueto to face them, who has a versatile arsenal to draw from and give an impatient hitter fits - a four seamer, a two seamer, a cutter, a change-up, a curveball and a slider. He can scrape as high as 95 mph with the heater, and drop it back to about 82 mph, and is even an effective fielder when he isn't being tackled by his teammates in the middle of a play.
Of course, he has gone to the disabled list three times in 2013, making a start like this pretty unlikely at certain points. His best numbers come against the Pirates, however - he's 13-4 against them in his career with 121 strikeouts in 133 innings and a 2.37 ERA. His ERA at PNC Park doesn't touch 2.00, but the Pirates can counter with Marlon Byrd, who for whatever reason can pick Cueto apart like a bug.
Since Cueto's most recent comeback, he's thrown 12 innings and 181 pitches in two starts against the Astros and Mets. Dusty Baker will still refer to him as the Reds' "ace," however, and seems nonplussed by any talk of how an average 15 pitches an inning isn't super, or how going from the Astros and Mets to an elimination game with the Reds seems like a harsh contrast.
Francisco Liriano has the opposite problem, in that he was yet to win against the Reds in 2013, having faced them three times for 24.1 innings, and despite giving up a mere 10 earned runs and striking out 28, proving once and for all that a pitcher is the only one in charge of getting a win. At home this year, PNC has been equally friendly to Liriano, who is 8-1 with a measely 1.47 ERA in 11 starts, and has only given up a pair of home runs there.