The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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September 30, 2013

Pirates sweep Reds, prepare for wild-card playoff

CINCINNATI — A three-game sweep left the Pirates with 94 wins and home-field advantage for the wild-card playoff. Now, it’s back home to PNC Park to get the postseason started.

Quite a weekend, no?

“The big thing about that is: It means absolutely nothing,” outfielder Marlon Byrd said. “Everything you’ve done for 162 games now means absolutely nothing.”

Tell that to the revved-up Pirates fans ready to pack PNC Park on Tuesday night for their first playoff game in 21 years.

The Pirates headed into the playoffs with a lot of momentum on Sunday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-2 in a game that was mostly an afterthought for teams looking ahead to their rematch in two days.

“I’m happy with where we’re at,” said Pedro Alvarez, who had a chance to share the NL’s home run title. “Obviously we have a lot to accomplish and get done, but we’ve gone out there and played some pretty good baseball. We’ve just got to keep going.”

The Pirates and Reds have met five times in the playoffs: 1970, 1972, 1975, 1979 and 1990, when the Reds won their last World Series title.

The wild-card matchup features right-hander Johnny Cueto (5-2), who is 8-2 career at PNC Park, against left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8), who is 0-3 in four starts against Cincinnati this season.

First, there was one game to finish the schedule, and it meant little to either team.

Pittsburgh played mostly backups. Alvarez was in the lineup, giving him a chance to try to win the NL home run crown outright. He and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt opened the day tied with 36. Alvarez walked, was hit by a pitch and popped out.

The last Pirate to lead the league in homers was Willie Stargell in 1973 with 44.

“This is something extra,” Alvarez said. “I’m not worried about that at all.”

Reds manager Dusty Baker started his regulars but began substituting after the third inning. Corky Miller had a two-run double.

The Reds dropped their last five games, matching their season high.

“I don’t think we’re worried about the way we finished the season,” catcher Ryan Hanigan said. “I think everybody’s excited about the opportunity. All of that is in the past. Everything is ahead of us.”

Jordy Mercer got the Pirates’ second inside-the-park homer of the season when right fielder Jay Bruce dived and missed his sinking liner in the second inning. Mercer also had a triple off Greg Reynolds (1-3) and scored twice.

Garrett Jones homered for the Pirates, who hit nine in all during the series. Brandon Cumpton (2-1) gave up a pair of hits in five shutout innings. Kyle Farnsworth got his second save.

On Tuesday, the Ohio River cities will add to a rivalry that has long been second-best for both cities. Cincinnati has its in-state grudge match with Cleveland. Pittsburgh also has a long-standing rivalry with Cleveland, a pair of steel cities that share a love for polkas and pierogies.

Lately, the river rivalry has moved to the forefront.

The Bengals beat the Steelers at Heinz Field last December to clinch the AFC North title and knock the Steelers out of the postseason. They signed one of Pittsburgh’s best players – linebacker James Harrison – as a free agent and beat the Steelers again in a Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium this month.

And now, it’s spilling over to baseball with an edgy series that got both cities’ attention during the summer – 28 batters plunked overall, the most in the majors. All those hit batters have left a mark.

It feels like a rivalry again.

“I think we’ve gotten each other’s attention since I’ve been here,” said Clint Hurdle, in his third season as the Pirates manager. “I think there’s a professional respect and there’s a desire to go out and win.

“I think the content of the games and the quality of the games over the past three years have probably led to that a little bit. It’s kind of refreshing. That’s the way it was back when I was a kid watching these two teams play.”

The Reds are trying to get past the disappointment of their closing week. They clinched a playoff spot on Monday night, but went in to a batting slump that allowed the Pirates to get home-field advantage for the wild card.

“As bad as things have been this weekend, we should be very happy and thankful that we’re going to Pittsburgh to play instead of being down and sad about what’s transpired,” Baker said. “Our goal is to go to Atlanta or St. Louis (in the division series) and then give our people some more games.”

NOTES: Alvarez also led the NL with 186 strikeouts. Bruce was second with 185. ... Reds 2B Brandon Phillips was out of the lineup with a bruised left shin, hit by a foul ball on Saturday. He’s expected to play on Tuesday. ... Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo finished first and second in the NL in on-base percentage. Votto led the NL in walks for the third straight season with a club-record 135. ... The Reds drew 2,492,059 fans for 80 home dates, a season record at Great American Ball Park.

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Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

 

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