After grueling year, one game carries significant weight
Bucs, Reds know how much advancing to NLDS means to franchises' futures
PITTSBURGH -- Both clubs in the National League Wild Card Game are toting some historical baggage, but they'd both be happy to carry it along to St. Louis for a Division Series later this week.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds meet Tuesday at 8:07 p.m. ET on TBS at PNC Park to determine which team has a 2013 postseason future. Having played 162 games to get to this point, they will rise or fall based on the outcome of one game. And for these two clubs, the importance of this game cannot be overstated.
The Pirates turned in 20 consecutive losing seasons between postseason appearances. The franchise has been waiting for this. Pittsburgh has been waiting for this. Expectations have been building toward this moment since 1992.
This is the feast after the famine for Bucs fans. You don't want to cut off the food service after a few bites.
"I'm looking forward to it, because it's significant to our city, it's significant to our fanbase," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Monday before his club had a workout at PNC Park. "This is part of what I envisioned when I signed up here."
On the other side of the argument, the Reds will be making their third postseason appearance in four years. That's way above the national average, but Cincinnati met with deep disappointment in both of those playoff appearances.
In 2010, the Reds were swept in a NLDS by the Phillies. In 2012, they took a 2-0 lead in a NLDS against the Giants, but then lost the next three games, in Cincinnati.
Much has been expected of the Reds, and they have fulfilled considerable promise during the regular seasons, including an NL Central title last season. But the postseasons have been disappointments. Maybe, with their ace, Johnny Cueto, in full health this time, it could be different.
"We were positioned pretty good last year," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said Monday. "We weren't positioned very well in 2010 playing with a young team against a dynamite team. The Phillies had guys that could hit, they had speed and they could pitch. They had [Roy Halladay] and Cliff Lee and all those kind of cats.
"Last year, we were positioned pretty good. The only problem we had was Johnny Cueto [getting hurt], and that was big in the equation. We lost him in the first game, and we had to move [Mat] Latos up to the second game, and then we had to pitch [Mike] Leake and he didn't match up good against the Giants. And then we had to pitch Latos again in Game 5, and that would have been Johnny's game."
Cueto is back from a third stay on the disabled list this season and the Reds are thrilled to have him available. But Latos has been suffering from a bone spur in his pitching arm, although Cincinnati is hopeful he can pitch in the NLDS.
"Now we have Latos with a bit of any injury that we hope he can get over," Baker said, "but everybody is hurting this time of year. It's just a matter of how hurt you are. If you're not playing kind of hurt, you didn't play very much."
What matters here, Baker said, was not what happened at any point in the past, but how well Tuesday night's pitcher worked.
"I think Johnny is the best guy to have pitching for us [Tuesday night]," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "He's our best big-game pitcher. ... He loves the pressure."
The pressure on the Pirates can be found in the two decades worth of frustration finally being overtaken by something much better for Bucs fans. This game is so significant for this franchise and its loyal supporters that you wonder if all that it signifies could be something of a burden. But Hurdle says no, that it is what it seems to be, the mark of achievement.
"Oh, there's no weight here." Hurdle said. "When you envision something and believe in something that a lot of people can't see, and don't believe in and you get to that point where it's tangible and it's real, it's not a weight at all. It's somewhat of an accomplishment, and it's somewhat of tangible evidence that you're heading in the right direction.
"One thing that we've tried to do since I've been here is build something of significance, and one of things you get when you become a little significant is you get a playoff game.
"The sustainability is the next chapter that you need to build upon from there. That's something this organization we're playing against has done, making the playoffs three out of the last four years. The winner of this game is going to play an organization that has been able to achieve that [sustainability].
"The sustainability part is what is important in sport, in life, in marriage."
For now, one game means as much you want it to mean, for Pittsburgh fans, for Cincinnati fans and for two franchises that are good enough to give themselves this chance.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.