Francisco Liriano, Pirates fans key terrific 6-2 win as Bucs advance

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds had no answers for Francisco Liriano (who was suffering from a sinus infection tonight), and an absurdly great crowd appeared to rattle Reds starter Johnny Cueto in the early innings, as the Pirates rolled to a feel-good 6-2 win. I hated the fact that they had to have a one-game playoff, since they're basically lightly-weighted coinflips. But as drama, as sport, this was fantastic.

The crowd at PNC sounded just incredible, dressed all in black and screaming like crazy during the pregame. The Bucs got off to a great start, with Liriano whiffing Shin-Soo Choo on four pitches. Liriano then got Ryan Ludwick and Joey Votto to ground out, getting through the first with no problem, needing just nine pitches overall. Liriano also moved quickly through the second inning, took making Jay Bruce look silly with his slider. That would be the template through the first several innings -- lost of strikes, lots of sliders against lefties, and nothing doing for the Reds.

Offensively, Andrew McCutchen walked with two outs in the first, but Justin Morneau hit a soft liner to the outfield to end the inning. In the second, though, Johnny Cueto left a changeup high in the zone for Marlon Byrd, who bashed it to left for a solo home run. (Thanks to Cueto for the mistake, and thanks again to the Reds for not claiming Byrd. Amusingly, Byrd would have made a great weapon for the Reds to use tonight against Liriano, too. The game might well have been closer if Byrd had been playing for the other team.)

A couple batters later, with the PNC Park crowd screaming, "Cue-to! Cue-to!", Cueto dropped the ball while on the mound. Then he left another pitch up in the zone, this time to Russell Martin, who did what you do with pitches like that, bashing it to left field for another solo homer. There's no reasonable conclusion than that the chanting was really getting to Cueto, meaning Pirates fans played an uncommonly direct role in shaping this game. Then Liriano, who couldn't care less about his plate appearances, followed with a hit, which is as sure a sign as any that the opposing pitcher is rattled. The Pirates put two runners on before Todd Frazier made a great catch leaning over the railing to end the rally.

The "Cue-to! Cue-to!" chanting was huge. As some on Twitter pointed out, it had much in common with the "Dar-ryl! Dar-ryl!" taunting of Darryl Strawberry in the 1986 World Series. You can bet Pirates fans are going to do that to Cueto every time they see him now.

In the third, the Pirates kept going -- Andrew McCutchen reached on a single, flew around to third on a Zack Cozart error on a hard-hit ball by Byrd, and came home on Pedro Alvarez's sacrifice fly.

In the top of the fourth, Liriano put two men on, but then turned to his vicious slider to get Joey Votto on three pitches. He couldn't do the same against Bruce, however, who snuck a ground ball past Alvarez for a two-out single to make it 3-1.

In the bottom of the inning, Starling Marte hit a one-out double off left-field umpire Tim Timmons. (You don't see that one every day.) That chased Cueto, who by that point had endured tons of abuse at the hands of both the Pirates' hitters and their fans.

The Reds then turned to Sean Marshall and ... guess what? The fans started chanting, "Mar-shall!" Maybe Dusty Baker should have turned to someone whose last name didn't have two syllables? Anyway, Neil Walker promptly hit a double to left to bring home Marte, making it 4-1. Marshall then loaded the bases and Baker brought in J.J. Hoover, proving that Baker had not learned anything whatsoever. Hoover, to his credit, did get Marlon Byrd to hit into a tailor-made double play, but Brandon Phillips flubbed it, bringing in a run.

Liriano didn't look as sharp in the fifth, struggling to throw strikes, but he got out of it by getting Chris Heisey to ground into a double play. He continued to look less-than-devastating in the sixth, giving up a double to Ludwick that McCutchen nearly chased down. But following Ludwick was Votto, and Liriano threw four straight sliders before getting Votto on a swinging strike.

Liriano's slider simply completely removed Votto from the game. This was Liriano's real advantage -- in the first few innings, he was fantastic, but in the later innings, he could get away with looking less than fantastic because the Reds just couldn't do much with his slider. Lefty/lefty matchups have been such a big part of Liriano's success this year, and he was in perfect position to exploit them tonight.

The Pirates' offense kept going. In the seventh, Logan Ondrusek left a fastball in the middle of the plate for leadoff batter Martin, who smashed it to right for his second homer of the game. Two batters later, the Pirates sent out Travis Snider to pinch-hit, and the crowded responded with chants of, "Lir-i-a-no!" (I think that meant something different than when they did it to Cueto.)

Tony Watson pitched the eighth and gave up a fly ball to Choo to the Clemente Wall that was reviewed, then ultimately called a home run. But that was it. Jason Grilli cruised through the ninth, and the Pirates had a relatively easy 6-2 win.

Martin's two homers were big, and so was McCutchen's 2-for-3, two-walk performance. But the keys were Liriano, who was exactly the right pitcher to face this lefty-heavy Reds team, and the fans, who clearly set the tone and  seemed to ruin Johnny Cueto's night. The fans really represented the city of Pittsburgh well tonight; anyone throughout the country who was on the fence about rooting for the Pirates is probably rooting for them now. And I'm sure the fans will keep doing what they do as the Pirates take on the Cardinals in the NLDS.

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