The Pittsburgh Pirates put an emphatic flourish on their season-long resurgence Sunday afternoon, completing a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds with a 4-2 victory at Great American Ball Park.
The win itself wasn’t significant in any way, as the Pirates had already secured home-field advantage for Tuesday’s National League wild card game the day before. Still, closing the season with a 5-1 road trip signals that these Bucs aren’t exactly backing into their first playoff appearance since 1992.
Pittsburgh finished the year at 94-68, a 15-win improvement over last season and 47 more than the franchise’s rock-bottom 2010. Although the Pirates couldn’t hang onto a four-game division lead in early August, they posted a 15-12 mark in September to guarantee PNC Park’s first-ever postseason game.
Tuesday’s winner-take-all showdown will bear little resemblance to Sunday’s exhibition-like affair, in which only one regular Pittsburgh starter – Pedro Alvarez – got an at-bat. Even that appearance was short-lived, as the Pirates third baseman got two plate appearances in an attempt to pull ahead of Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt for the NL’s outright home run lead. If Goldschmidt doesn’t homer today, he and Alvarez will split the crown with 36 apiece.
Aside from Alvarez’ quest, Sunday was a chance for the Pirates’ ‘B’ team to shine, led by starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton. The rookie continued to impress in sporadic MLB opportunities, allowing just two hits in five scoreless innings. Shortstop Jordy Mercer hit an inside-the-park home run and a triple, while Garrett Jones launched a solo dinger in what could’ve been his last start with the Bucs.
Pittsburgh carried a 4-0 lead into the eighth inning, but the Reds (90-72) struck back for a pair of runs on a Corky Miller double against Jeanmar Gomez. The Pirates eluded further damage with a double-play turn, then Kyle Farnsworth threw a scoreless ninth to close it out.
Much like the Pirates, Cincinnati went with a spot-starter in the regular-season finale. Greg Reynolds permitted three runs on seven hits, including Mercer’s round-tripper that resulted from an ill-conceived dive by right fielder Jay Bruce. That, in conjunction with John Buck’s RBI single, made the score 2-0 in the second. Southwest Ohio’s own Josh Harrison raised the advantage to three runs in the fourth, following Mercer’s leadoff triple with a line-drive hit.
Jones went deep off Reds reliever Nick Christiani in the eighth, giving the Pirates nine homers in the three-game series. Pittsburgh hit a season-high six in Saturday’s 8-3 win, which guaranteed at least one more game on the North Shore this fall.
The pitching matchup for Tuesday’s wild card game will feature a pair of Dominican Republic natives, as the Reds’ Johnny Cueto is slated to oppose Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano. First pitch from PNC Park is scheduled for 8:07 p.m.