Commentary

Five NL wild-card questions

Originally Published: September 30, 2013
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN.com

The Reds and Pirates have been playing each other since 1882; Chester Arthur was the president then.

They have played each other five times in the postseason: 1970, '72, '75, '79 and '90; the '72 National League Championship Series was one of the best.

Now they will play one game: The winner advances and the loser goes home. It will be the first postseason game for the Pirates since 1992. PNC Park will be rocking. It can't get much better than this.

Here are five questions.

How ready is Johnny Cueto for this start?

Cueto was on the disabled list for 10 weeks with a pulled muscle in his side. It was so bad, by late August, Reds manager Dusty Baker said the best-case scenario was that Cueto would pitch out of the bullpen in the postseason. Instead, he made it back for two starts in September. He pitched 12 innings, while allowing eight hits and one earned run.

Johnny Cueto
Cueto

"I saw one of those starts," one scout said. "He looked good, not like a guy who had been hurt."

The Reds had planned on starting Mat Latos in this game, but an elbow injury kept him out. Cueto is the Reds' best pitcher when he is healthy, but is he strong enough having thrown just 12 innings since late June?

What should be expect from Pirates starter Francisco Liriano?

We're never quite sure, but he was far less erratic than in the last few years: 16-8, 3.02 ERA and a .224 batting average against made him Pittsburgh's best pitcher this year.

Francisco Liriano
Liriano

He got this assignment, in part because he is devastating against left-handed hitters: a .131 batting average, and only two extra-base hits (no homers), in 130 at-bats this season.

Three of the Reds' best hitters, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo, bat left-handed. Votto and Bruce do well against lefties, but Choo hit only .215 and slugged .265 (no homers) against lefties. Choo is the guy who makes things go at the top of the Reds' order.

What does momentum mean at this time of year?

The Pirates won five of their last six games -- they allowed a total of 11 runs in those games -- and swept the Reds in Cincinnati the final weekend of the season to secure home-field advantage for the wild-card game.

The Reds lost their final five games of the season, scoring a total of eight runs. One scout said the series last weekend in Cincinnati "looked like two teams going in opposite directions. But things can change fast in October." Just ask the Reds. Last year, they won the first two games of the division series against the Giants in San Francisco, then lost three straight at home to get eliminated.

What are the Reds' plans for Billy Hamilton?

His speed is a weapon that other teams don't have.

Billy Hamilton
Hamilton

He went 7-for-19 at the plate in September and stole 13 bases in 14 tries. Teams usually win in October because they have a strong bullpen and a strong bench; bringing Hamilton off the bench to pinch-run and steal a base could steal the Reds a victory.

Hamilton might not be ready to play center field every day, and he's still learning to switch-hit, but no other team in the playoffs will have anyone quite like him coming off the bench in the late innings.

What is the status of Pirates closer Jason Grilli?

All good. He missed six weeks with a forearm injury, but he returned Sept. 4 and has been impressive since.

Jason Grilli
Grilli

He saved three games during the final week of the regular season -- running his total to 33 for the season -- giving the Pirates 55 saves this year, most in the NL.

With Grilli, the Pirates' bullpen is loaded; Mark Melancon, who did a nice job filling in for Grilli, can return to his role as the eight-inning setup guy. Only the Braves had a better bullpen ERA than the Pirates (2.89) this year. And now it appears the Pirates' pen is at full capacity.

The pick: Pirates win.

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