The Pittsburgh Pirates entered Tuesday’s game the favorite team of many fans whose own teams failed to make the playoffs, with some going so far as to call upon the Reds to lose graciously as a favor to baseball fans as a whole. One suspects the Reds did not heed that call, although from the way the game was played it was somewhat difficult to be sure.
To borrow from Game of Thrones, when you play the game of Wild Card, you win or you die. The Pirates came into the game with the feeling of one of the Starks—long-suffering, noble, dignified. It’s not hard to see why the Pirates are so universally beloved—they feel like a team that was thought up by Walt Disney Pictures for a movie like Miracle or Remember the Titans. Their last playoff appearance coincided with their last season of Barry Bonds, back in 1992, over a decade ago. Since then, they have the worst record in baseball at .433 (albeit just barely ahead of the Royals and their .435 mark). They’ve been one of only two teams never to have a playoff appearance during that stretch (the other being… yes, yes, the Royals, you’re noticing the pattern here). And all the while, they had to watch their hometown star, a player who would be underrated by the title “once in a generation talent,” leave them to even greater success (and greater controversy) with another team.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are not so much underdogs, as they’re what underdogs root for. And unlike some other franchises that have had a history of futility, the Pirates haven’t been famous for curses. They haven’t worn their losing on their sleeves, and they’ve established no meaningful rivalries in the league. Rooting for the Pirates seems like the most inoffensive thing imaginable, unless your favorite team is still in the playoffs.
So it’s a shame that they had to face a team like the Reds in a one-game matchup. The Reds haven’t exactly been worldbeaters over that time, with the 13th-best record in baseball at .495. They haven’t been bad, necessarily, and the past few years they’ve been quite good. But they have only three playoff appearances over that time, and only one series win to show for them. It’s only when you put them up against a team like the Pirates that they stop looking a bit like underdogs themselves. Pretty much the only people who hate the Reds are Cardinals fans, and the only people who hate Reds headliner Joey Votto are Reds fans driven to madness by watching him walk with runners on base ahead of him.
So if the Reds had to be a villain, they’re more Tyrion Lannister than anything—charming, friendly and well-meaning, but thrust onto the side of the villains by circumstance. Adding to the “maybe they would be underdogs any other time” feeling for the Reds is that they were on the road at Pittsburgh, having fallen four wins short of the Pirates’ record for the season. And say this about Pirates fans, they packed the place—even the “standing room only” areas were filled. And fans coordinated themselves into a “blackout,” with only a smattering of Pirates yellow to be seen among the thick crowds of black shirts. Pirates fans were loud, too, chanting and clapping and taunting Reds starter Johnny Cueto.
The game could well be boiled down to a game of two pitchers. Liriano started off both economical and filthy—his first walk didn’t come until the fourth inning, and his slider in the first to leadoff man Shin Soo Choo was so deceptive that Choo ended up kneeling at the plate after swinging at it. Liriano didn’t rack up the Ks, but he pitched efficiently and kept the ball in the yard, for seven strong innings of work. (He also got into the action on offense, hitting a single early on.) Cueto was nowhere near as impressive, and despite two impressive fielding plays from third baseman Frazier, the Pirates managed to score early and often against the Reds, with Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin both going yard in the second. (Amusingly, the NL co-leader in home runs, Pedro Alvarez, batted between the two and lined out.) With Cueto recording no strikeouts in just three and a third innings with a pair of dingers allowed, Dusty Baker made the decision to go to his bullpen. But the Pirates scored three runs against Cueto before Baker lifted him, and while they would go on to score three more, that would end up being all the runs they needed.
One hates to lay all the Reds’ woes on offense on their best player, especially when their best player has been piled on all too much already this year to begin with. But maybe that was part of the problem. Joey Votto had a very un-Votto-like night at the plate, going 0-for-4 with two Ks and no walks. When facing off against Liriano in the third with runners on first and second, Votto struck out swinging at three sliders outside the zone. Liriano had his slider working for him, and one wonders if Votto hadn’t internalized the criticism about his performance with runners on and was chasing. It should be noted that Votto is on record as defending his approach, and for all the right reasons, too. (RBI machine Brandon Phillips put up a similar 0-for-4, but probably pleased his fans by putting the ball in play for all four outs.)
But tonight wasn’t about Votto, or Cueto, or any of the Reds. The Pirates ended the evening as they began—as the stars of their own under-the-underdog story. For the first time in over a decade, the Pirates and their fans can celebrate playoff baseball, and this time even a playoff victory to go with it. And baseball fans everywhere (except for St. Louis, and Atlanta, and Los Ang… okay, so baseball fans almost but not quite all places) will be cheering right along with them.