NL wild-card preview

BY foxsports • September 29, 2013

1.       Starting lineup – The Reds have the NL’s second-highest on-base percentage as a team (.327) and the top two players in Joey Votto (.435) and Shin-Soo Choo (.423). But can they score enough times with the opportunities they create? Jay Bruce (109) and Brandon Phillips (103) set career highs in RBI this season, but the Reds are just 10th in the NL in slugging percentage (.391) and eighth in batting average (.249). Third baseman Todd Frazier had the lone home run for the Reds in their season-ending, six-game homestand. Bruce led the team with 30 home runs but after hitting two off of Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers on Sept. 8, the Reds right fielder hit just one homer the final 18 games. Ryan Ludwick has been moved to the No. 2 hole, but was just 2 for 18 on the final homestand. ... The Pirates out-homered the Reds 9-1 in a three-game sweep in Cincinnati to end the regular season. MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen leads the Pirates in batting average (.317), on-base percentage (.404) and slugging percentage (.508). Lead-off hitter Starling Marte was third in the NL with 41 stolen bases. He and McCutchen are two of the fastest players in MLB and cause headaches when on base with their ability to score from first base on extra-base hits. Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL home run crown with 36 and became the first Pittsburgh batter with 100 RBI in a season since Jason Bay in 2006. The addition of Marlon Byrd through a trade with the Mets on Aug. 27 has provided balance to the order, allowing manager Clint Hurdle to hit Alvarez No. 6 behind Justin Morneau and Byrd. ... THE EDGE: Pirates   

2.       Rotation – The Reds will send ace Johnny Cueto to the mound even though he’s had just two starts since returning from a third stint on the disabled list this season for a lat problem. He’s made just 11 starts this season because of injuries, but two were against the Pirates. Cueto has allowed just three hits and one run in 12 1/3 innings (0.73 ERA) against Pittsburgh this season and his career numbers suggest the Pirates are one of his favorite teams to face. He’s 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 starts against them, allowing 98 hits in 133 innings. Pittsburgh’s OBP against Cueto is just .266. In 13 career starts at PNC Park, Cueto is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA and two complete games. ... The Pirates will hand the ball to resurgent left-hander Francisco Liriano. He’s won a career-high 16 games, and his 3.02 ERA is the second lowest of his career. He is 0-3 against Cincinnati this season in four starts, but the Reds are hitting just .193 against him. Liriano is 8-1 at PNC Park this season with a 1.47 ERA. His lone loss at home was against the Reds, 2-0 on June 1. He gave the Reds just two runs over eight innings at PNC on Sept. 20, but the Pirates lost that game 6-5 in 10 innings. ... THE EDGE: Even

3.       Bullpen – The Reds have Aroldis Chapman at the back end of the bullpen. He’s 5 for 5 in save opportunities against Pittsburgh this season, allowing just four hits and zero runs in 6 1/3 innings with 11 strikeouts and three walks. Cincy has had to mix and match setup men with injuries to Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall. Broxton is out for the season, so J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure are the main arms from the right side, while Zach Duke and Manny Parra have come in against left-handed bats. LeCure is the high leverage arm, having stranded 24-of-27 inherited runners, including the bases loaded three times. Parr has stranded 24 of the last 28 runners he has inherited. Rookie lefty Tony Cingrani has been out since Sept. 10 with back spasms and won't be available for this game. ... The Pirates led the NL with 55 saves this season, were second in bullpen ERA (2.84) to Atlanta, and third by allowing just 23.9 percent of inherited runners to score. Jason Grilli has returned from injury to regain the closer’s role. He’s 33 of 35 this season, although one of his two blown saves was against Cincinnati in June. All-Star Mark Melancon snapped a streak of three consecutive appearances allowing a run with a scoreless inning against the Reds on Saturday. Left-hander Tony Watson has a streak of 21 consecutive scoreless appearances. He has a career 1.89 ERA against the Reds in 19 games, and Cincinnati batters are hitting just .100 against him. ... THE EDGE: Pirates

4.       Bench – The Reds haven’t got much from their subs all season. Their most potent weapon, especially in one game, could be the legs of Billy Hamilton. Hamilton has been used mostly as a pinch runner and is 13 of 14 in stolen-base attempts since being called up. Xavier Paul is their best hitter off the bench (.273, three homers, nine RBI) but could be neutralized by Watson. The Reds are hitting .251 off the bench with just 12 extra-base hits in 203 at-bats. ... The Pirates bench became stronger when they acquired Byrd and Morneau. They have veteran hitters with power in Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider. Snider has three pinch-hit homers this season, while Jones is 16 for 51 with three doubles and four home runs against Cincinnati this season. ... THE EDGE: Pirates

5.       Intangibles – The Reds are in the postseason for the third time in four seasons and won both of their road playoff games last year against San Francisco. They have won four of their last six games at PNC Park, including taking two of three in a series Sept. 20-22. Cincinnati’s 76 errors committed were the third-fewest errors in the NL and 29 fewer than Pittsburgh. The Reds’ .987 fielding percentage was third in the league behind Arizona and St. Louis. The Reds are 71-9 when leading after seven innings. ... The Pirates won the regular-season series 11-8 against the Reds. The Bucs are in the postseason for the first time since 1992 and are riding the emotion of their first winning season since '92. This will be the first playoff game in Pittsburgh since a 7-1 win against Atlanta in Game 5 of the 1992 NLCS. Catcher Russell Martin led all of MLB by throwing out 29 would-be base stealers. Pittsburgh is 73-4 when leading after seven innings. ... THE EDGE: Pirates

Final prediction: Everything points to the Pirates moving on to the NLDS against top seed St. Louis, with the exception of Cueto. Pittsburgh out-did the Reds in every phase of the game in sweeping three games to end the regular season. The one-game format makes this a crap-shoot, and the Reds have the advantage if Cueto is on his game. The teams played six one-run games this season, splitting them, and only four of their 19 games were decided by more than three runs. The Reds have been resilient all season, but is it enough to overcome Pittsburgh’s momentum and pitching? ... THE EDGE: Pirates

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