A prelude to the playoffs? Not Sunday’s baseball game in Great American Ball Park. It was closer to a spring exhibition game in Florida or Arizona.
The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates decided on Saturday — well, the Pirates did — what needed to be settled and that was which team would be the home team for Tuesday’s National League wild card game.
The Pirates grabbed it with victories over the Reds Friday and Saturday, so Sunday’s game was a meaningless exercise in which by game’s end the lineups were sprinkled with names unfamiliar to the most ardent of fans.
To make it official, the Pirates won, 4-2, completing the three-game sweep. It was announced as a sellout but only about half showed up and the best thing they saw was a two-run double by The People’s Choice, third-string catcher Corky Miller.
So now it is on to the important stuff — the one-game playoff Tuesday in PNC Park where the winner continues in the playoffs and the rest go home to play golf, bowl, hunt, fish or plop into the La-Z-Boy.
With scheduled pitcher Mat Latos fighting loose bone chips and fragments in his elbow, Johnny Cueto is the choice to make certain the Reds play more than one post-season game.
For manager Dusty Baker, it is the right choice.
“He is The Man,” said Baker. “He is Our Man. He is the most competitive person I’ve ever known.”
Cueto was scheduled to pitch Sunday’s meaningless game, but Baker did The Fast Shuffle and held Cueto back for Tuesday.
For Cueto it is a chance to make amends for what happened last year in San Francisco, in Game One of the National League Division Series. Cueto threw eight pitches and left with back spasms. He was supposed to pitch Game 5, but couldn’t answer the bell.
“I was so excited in San Francisco, so emotional, that I overdid it,” said Cueto. “I was trying too much and I don’t really know what happened (to his back) but I think it was about being too emotional for the game.”
Cueto spent three separate periods on the disabled list this season and the third time lasted for 10 weeks. It was thought when he returned Sept. 15 that he would work out of the bullpen. But Cueto wanted to try starting.
He made two starts, one against Houston and one against the New York Mets, and was Cueto-esque against two bad teams — 1-0. 0.75 ERA, one run, eight hits, four walks 10 strikeouts in 12 innings.
There was a point where the Reds considered shutting him down for the season and then there were the bullpen thoughts. Many wondered if he could make it back.
“My thoughts were that I started feeling really good when I was hurt (lat injury) and I hoped that when I got back there would be a couple more games to go and hoped I could help them team,” said Cueto. “Now I’m happy they are counting on me in the biggest game of the year.”
So now he faces the resurgent Pirates in a hostile environment, the first-ever postseason game in PNC Park since it opened in 2001. Cueto is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts, and is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against the Pirates.
Of his success against the Pirates, Cueto said, “I don’t know how to explain that. I just try to do my job. They have a great team with really good players, so I have to do my job.
“I’m feeling really happy and I thank God for this opportunity,” said Cueto. “It is a meaningful game for me, the most important game of the season. All I have to do is keep doing my job. Baseball is still the same and I hope to do what I have to do.”
Cueto admits he was a bit confused when he was originally scheduled to pitch Sunday.
“I had my doubts about pitching Tuesday and I was thinking, ‘Wow, why are they using me Sunday in a game that won’t have any value for us. So I was waiting to see what happened and when the pitching coach called me in Saturday and told me I would be the starter Tuesday I really got happy, really got excited.”
After what happened in San Francisco last year, Cueto hopes to low-key it as much as possible, despite the pressure, despite the howling masses cheering against him.
“I’m going to try to keep it as normal as I can,” he said. “I always was like that for every game, emotional and excited. I always try to be the same, but it was a little more in San Francisco.”
After only two starts, there still is concern about Cueto’s well-being, but he said, “After both my starts since I’ve been back I feel normal, like I’ve been pitching all year.”