By Andrew Nagel
The Pittsburgh Pirates came to Cincinnati this past weekend and were not too kind to their hosts. The Pirates swept the Reds in a three game series that decided the home field for Tuesday night’s Wild Card playoff game. Pittsburgh outscored Cincinnati 16-6, outhit them 29-17 and clubbed nine home runs in beating up on Reds pitching.
What do the Reds need to do in order to beat the Pirates and advance to the National League Division Series vs. the St. Louis Cardinals? Confidence, which to Brandon Phillips is swag! The Reds need to get their swag back and who better than to provide that? Mr. Swag himself, the King of Swag, Brandon Phillips.
In the three games series just played over the weekend, Phillips was locked in at the plate and in the field. He was his normal loose, confident, smiling self. Phillips once again made tough plays in the field that he makes look routine in Friday and Saturday’s game. After an 0-4 performance on Friday, Phillips seemed to make an adjustment Saturday returning to his strength by driving the ball to the right side as he went 2-3 with one run scored and collected another RBI, his 103rd of the year.
Phillips’ 103 RBI’s in a season is his career best. He finished second among second basement in RBI’s behind New York Yankees Robinson Cano who knocked in 107 runs this year. Cano’s RBI total was in nine more games played than Phillips. The next closest second baseman on the RBI leader board behind Cano and Phillips is Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox who each had 84 RBI’s this year.
Besides swag, the Reds need to show the Pirates their toughness. During Phillips’ third at-bat on Saturday, Phillips fouled a Charlie Morton pitch off his left shin which immediately swelled up to the size of a golf ball. Phillips remained in the game and singled to right field. He was relieved the rest of the game by Cesar Izturis as he could barely run to first. What can the other Reds player’s learn from that Phillips at-bat? Play ball! Whatever it takes, you have to find a way. Everyone is a little banged up right now at this point in the season, but you have to have that mental toughness to succeed and overcome all obstacles.
So here are my keys for a Cincinnati Reds victory in their Wild Card Game vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday:
1. Johnny Cueto.
To say that Cueto has owned the Pirates is an understatement. Cueto has faced the Bucs twice this year, and both times he was successful. On April 13th, a game in which he left early due to an injury in his triceps, he pitched four and a third innings, allowing two hits, one run while striking out three. The next time he faced the Pirates was on May 31st where he was almost perfect, pitching eight innings of scoreless baseball yielding only one hit while striking out six. Pirate hitters have a batting average of .100 this year vs. Cueto. In 2012, Pittsburgh hitters batted .219 vs. Cueto; in 2011 they hit .209 and in 2010, .134. Having not faced the Pirates regularly this season is an advantage to Cueto as the Pirate hitters will not know what to expect. If Cueto is healthy and throws like he can, it will bode well for the Reds.
Pittsburgh has not been to the post-season in 21 years. Heck, they haven’t had a winning record in 21 years. They are just happy to be in the post season. The Reds have been to the playoffs the last three out of four years. They have been Central Division Champions. They have felt the heartache of the playoffs. Last year in the Division Series with a 2-0 lead over the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants, they lost the next three games to bounce them out of the playoffs. The Reds know what its like when the bright lights of the playoffs are on them. Been there, done that, and that experience, even the bad experiences of losing, should help them in the long run.
3. Star Power.
There will be plenty of stars to watch in this series. The Reds have the advantage here. They have the potential to put up big offensive number all through their lineup. They have All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips, former National League Most Valuable Player and All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, 2012 All-Star right fielder Jay Bruce, center fielder Shin-Soo Choo and their latest secret weapon, speedster Billy Hamilton who can manufacture a run just by himself. The Reds also have a pitching staff that boasts of former World Series Champion Bronson Arroyo, two-time no hitter pitcher Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, and work-horse Matt Latos as well as a bullpen featuring the return of lefty Sean Marshall, Sam LeCure, JJ Hoover and flame throwing, shut-down closer, All-Star Aroldis Chapman. Every hitter in the Reds lineup could go deep at any given time. Pirate pitching will have to be on their A-game in order to keep the Reds’ bats quiet. They have done so the last three games but the odds are the Reds offense is due to break out in a big way.
4. Dusty Baker vs. Clint Hurdle.
This key is almost an even draw. Both Dusty Baker and Clint Hurdle have been successful managers at the major league level. Both have teams that love and support them as manager. The recent playoff experience, having made the playoffs in three of the last four years should give Baker a slight edge in this category. It could come down to which Skipper makes the right move.
5. BP Factor.
Let’s call Brandon Phillips The X Factor. Phillips loves the spotlight. He is the spotlight. With Dusty Baker putting Phillips back in the run producing four spot in the lineup where he has produced all year, it’s time for Phillips to shine. He has come through all year on defense and at the plate. If the hitters in front of Phillips can get on base, then he could put the Reds on his shoulders and lead them to a victory.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a confident team right now having just swept the Reds on their own turf. They have every reason to feel like they can beat the Reds one more time on Tuesday. The Cincinnati Reds are a very good team and the if Pirates show up overly confident, the Reds will make them pay. They have won ninety plus games three out of the last four years in making the playoffs those three years. If the Reds can get into a rhythm, then they are a championship quality team. Its time for the entire Reds team to embrace that spotlight and shine!