(Reuters) - After more than two decades of misery, the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrated their return to postseason action with a rousing 6-2 home victory over the Cincinnati Reds in their do-or-die National League wild card playoff game on Tuesday.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano held the Reds to one run on four hits over seven innings and was backed by two home runs from catcher Russell Martin as a standing-room only crowd of more than 40,000 at PNC Park waved black hankies and roared their support at Pittsburgh’s first playoff game in 21 years.
The victory advanced the Pirates to the best-of-five Division Series against the top-seeded NL Central champion Cardinals starting on Thursday in St Louis.
“You talk about feeling good all over,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters after getting showered with champagne by his players.
“Our ball park showed up. Our fan base showed up. Our city showed up. Our guys fed off of that from the beginning,” he added.
“It was tremendous energy. I’ve been to a lot of great venues, played in some important games, but that spark from our fan base, I don’t know if I ever felt that before.”
Liriano was dominant, setting down the first nine Reds batters, who did not get the ball out of the infield until the fourth inning. The Dominican walked one and struck out five before giving way to Tony Watson and closer Jason Grilli.
Second-inning home runs by Marlon Byrd and Martin off Reds starter Johnny Cueto got the Pirates started and they added another run in the third on a sacrifice fly by Pedro Alvarez for a 3-0 lead.
The home run by 36-year-old Byrd came in his first postseason at-bat after playing 1,250 major league games for seven clubs.
Cincinnati got on the scoreboard with a fourth-inning run that made it 3-1 when Jay Bruce’s two-out single to left scored Shin-Soo Choo, who became the first Reds player to reach base when he was hit by a pitch leading off the frame.
The Reds almost tied it up later in the fourth, but third baseman Todd Frazier’s bid for a two-run homer drifted to the foul side of the left-field line before Liriano struck him out to end the threat.
The Pirates promptly extended the lead in their half of the fourth with two more runs after doubles by Starling Marte and Neil Walker that made it 5-1, and Martin crushed another home run off reliever Logan Ondrusek in the seventh.
Martin became the only catcher ever to hit postseason home runs for three different teams, having previously homered for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees in the playoffs.
Choo got the Reds one run closer with a home run in the eighth but the Korean’s blast was not enough as Pittsburgh won in the postseason for the first time since 1992.
“Those balls in the heart of the plate are high-percentage pitches to hit and out of the park,” Baker said about the troubles experienced by Cueto and the six relievers that followed him to the mound.
Baker bemoaned the narrowly missed opportunity the Reds had in the fourth. “It’s a different ball game if Frazier’s ball stays fair. That’s a totally different ball game,” he said.
Martin saluted the work of starter Liriano and the lift the team got from the fans and looked forward to the rest of the postseason.
”Francisco pitched an unbelievable game and we were able to score some runs for him,“ his battery mate said. ”It was overall a great day for everybody in Pittsburgh.
“This is 20 years of waiting and you just saw it all come out in one night. Hopefully, we can keep this atmosphere late into October.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by John O'Brien