Following Monday's AL tiebreaker game, the MLB postseason begins Tuesday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Pirates host the Reds for a one-game, do-or-die playoff scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET. It's the first playoff baseball Pittsburgh has seen in 20 years, and Bucs fans surely hope this postseason lasts longer than one game. The Reds suffered a crushing defeat in last year's NLDS, blowing a 2-0 series lead and losing three consecutive games at home to the eventual World Series champion Giants.
Starting Pitching: Francisco Liriano gets the start for the Pirates, coming off a resurgent regular season in which he compiled a 16-9 record and 3.02 ERA in 26 starts. The left-hander struck out an average of 9.1 batters per nine innings, but by cutting down on his walks and home runs allowed, Liriano looked more like the pitcher we saw in 2006 and 2010, when he was one of the best pitchers in the AL. He was outstanding at home, with an 8-1 record, 1.47 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 11 starts. In four starts against the Reds this year, he went 0-3 yet posted a 3.70 ERA and an opposing batting average of .193.
Johnny Cueto seems a curious choice to start for the Reds, considering he's only made two starts since returning from the disabled list. However, he pitched extremely well in those two appearances, allowing one earned run over 12 innings with 10 strikeouts, four walks and eight hits allowed. An issue with a strained lat muscle put Cueto on the DL three times this season, limiting him to 11 starts. Though Mat Latos was Cincinnati's best starting pitcher this season, manager Dusty Baker apparently considers Cueto his ace and wants him for this one-game playoff. Cueto faced the Pirates twice this year — both times at PNC Park — and allowed just one run in 12.1 innings.
Bullpen: As you might expect for two playoff teams, both the Pirates and Reds featured excellent bullpens this season. Pittsburgh relievers compiled a collective 2.46 ERA, second only to the Braves in the NL. Cincinnati had the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the league at 3.29.
Until suffering a strained elbow in late July, Jason Grilli was one of the best closers in the NL and a huge reason for the Pirates' success. Despite missing six weeks, his 33 saves were the sixth-most in the league. Grilli also struck out 74 batters in 50 innings. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, setup man Mark Melancon stepped into the ninth-inning role for Grilli and was just as good. Getting out of the AL revitalized Melancon's career. In 71 innings, he struck out 70 batters and posted a 1.39 ERA.
However, the Reds might have the most dominant closer in MLB, in terms of stuff. (Braves and Craig Kimbrel fans will likely disagree.) Aroldis Chapman struck out 112 batters in 63.2 innings this season, which averages out to 15.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Oh, and he notched 38 saves. Cincinnati doesn't have quite the same bullpen depth as Pittsburgh, but if Cueto pitches deep into the game, Sam LeCure and Manny Parra provide strong setup relief on the way to Chapman.
Lineup: Here is where the Reds would appear to have their biggest advantage. Their 698 runs were the third-most in the NL, resulting in a +109 run differential, also the third-best in the league. Cincinnati has five players in its lineup with 15 or more home runs, led by Jay Bruce's 30. Both he and Brandon Phillips exceeded 100 RBI this year as well. Then there's Joey Votto, who led the NL with a .435 on-base percentage (OBP) and finished among the league's top three with a .926 OPS.
The Pirates counter with the likely NL MVP in Andrew McCutchen. He finished among the league's top 10 in the triple-slash categories while slugging 21 homers with 84 RBI. But Pittsburgh's big power threat was third baseman Pedro Alvarez, whose 36 homers tied for the NL lead. Alvarez also led the Pirates with 100 RBI, despite a .233 batting average and .294 OBP. Marlon Byrd was an excellent late-season acquistion, providing an .843 OPS in 30 games, and Starling Marte (.280 average) was the team's best hitter behind McCutchen. But Pittsburgh's lineup doesn't have the depth nor the firepower that the Reds can send to the plate.
Bench: Baker is being coy about whether or not he'll include speedster Billy Hamilton on the Reds' playoff roster. But it would be absurd not to keep such a pinch-running weapon on hand, especially in a one-game playoff. Hamilton was essentially a designated runner, stealing 13 bases and getting caught only once. He may not get an at-bat in Tuesday's game, yet could still be crucial to its outcome if he pinch-runs for one of the Reds' slower baserunners in late innings.
But the Pirates have the stronger, deeper bench, thanks to GM Neal Huntington's trade deadline dealings. Getting Byrd and Justin Morneau left Garrett Jones without a place to play, but he gives manager Clint Hurdle some left-handed power to use when needed. John Buck and Travis Snider also provide some pop off the bench. Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata also give Hurdle some defensive versatility later in the game, if he has to make a tough pinch-hitting decision.
Overall: It's too bad the Reds and Pirates will only play one game against each other this postseason. This matchup would've made for a compelling five- or seven-game series. Pittsburgh won the season series, 11-8, and won four of its last six versus Cincinnati. That includes a season-ending three-game sweep during which the Pirates outscored the Reds, 16-6. Say what you will about momentum going into the playoffs, but taking a five-game losing streak into the postseason isn't ideal. With the Pirates playing at home in front of what's sure to be a frenzied crowd, hungry for October success, this game looks to be in Pittsburgh's favor.