The Pirates are off to St. Louis, while the Reds are headed home after Pittsburgh won the wild-card elimination game 6-2 Tuesday night, before a delirious home crowd at PNC Park. It was a monumental win for a franchise that had gone 21 years since its last postseason victory. It was also a game that met nearly every pregame expectation.
Francisco Liriano just had the best season by a left-handed starting pitcher vs. left-handed hitters in major league history. The Reds responded by doing nothing.
In case yinz were busy getting to Pittsburgh to wait, yinz? Who the hell are yinz? Anyway, here's what you may have missed in sports on Tuesday:
Oh my goodness, hockey's back? Hockey's back! And with it came a barrage of goals from defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago, which beat Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, 6-4, in its season opener. "Ten goals?" yelled 58-year-old Blackhawks fan Gary Habermeyer. "What the hell is this garbage? Polo? What happened to hockey?" When his son-in-law Dan Nielson tried to explain that there were a number of offseason rule changes put in place by the NHL to increase scoring, Habermeyer slammed down the legs of his Barcalounger and shoved a finger in Nielson's face. "I'll tell you what the problem is," Habermeyer shot back. "It's your generation. A bunch of showboaters. No one willing to do the hard work. No one willing to play defense. Patrick Kane? That's just a child wearing skates carrying around a big stick. When things get hard he'll just shut down the government. Not like Bobby Hull. Now there was a real man. Don't look at your phone when we're having a heart-to heart conversation!" But Nielson didn't look up from his phone, as he was texting his wife, Bridget, to say that she owed him more than one for spending the evening bonding with her father, and also to ask what Patrick Kane had to do with the government shutdown.
Pittsburgh's battery of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin made sure the Pirates' first postseason trip in 21 years would not be a one-game affair, as they topped the Cincinnati Reds, 6-2, in the NL wild-card playoff. "I just keep thinking, What could I have done differently?" said Reds manager Dusty Baker after the game. Baker then took a moment to think back over the events of the game, during which he managed to use seven pitchers without deploying superstar closer Aroldis Chapman, before adding, "And the answer is nothing."
It’s been 22 years since Pittsburgh hosted a winner-take-all baseball game. The most striking thing about that 1991 Game 7 against Atlanta wasn’t the result; it was the audience, or lack thereof, there to witness it. Paid attendance was 11,000 fans shy of a sellout at old Three Rivers Stadium, and the camera views of entire swaths of empty seats for a game that would decide the NL pennant were striking. There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. It’s tough to sell out expensive tickets to back-to-back weeknight games on short notice, especially since Three Rivers Stadium could hold nearly 58,000 fans, a larger seating capacity than any MLB stadium in use today. Maybe Pirates fans were even jaded (!) from hosting their seventh playoff game in 13 months.
Whatever the reasons, they no longer apply. Tonight the Pirates, fresh off their first winning season since the first George Bush was president, will host their first playoff game at cozy PNC Park, one of the most beautiful places to witness a baseball game. And it will be a sellout.
The Pirates host the Cincinnati Reds, to whom they lost the NLCS in 1990, and these are two teams that arrived at this point from very different directions. The Reds are supposed to be here; if anything, this season is a disappointment in that they failed to win the NL Central and had to settle for the wild-card game. This is their third playoff spot (and third 90-win season) in the last four years. They rank third in the NL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. They are a good team having a good season.
The Pirates, by contrast, have been trying to build toward this season ever since Sid Bream crossed home plate. With their third general manager, seventh manager, and umpteenth rebuilding plan since then, they finally got it right, even though watching the Pirates try to break through the .500 barrier the last few years was a little bit like watching X-1 test pilots try to break through the sound barrier before Chuck Yeager came along.
With five days to go in the regular season, three teams are vying for two playoff spots in one league, while three more jockey for position in the other. With help from our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, here's what we're watching for four of those teams. (Don't fret, Pirates and Rays fans, we'll have plenty to say about your teams soon.)
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Games ahead in NL Central race: 2
What's happening: One of the biggest and most successful youth movements by any playoff team in the expansion era.
Michael Wacha became the third pitcher this season to lose a no-hitter in the ninth inning. It was a heartbreaking play, with Ryan Zimmerman rapping a chopper to short with two outs in the ninth, an off-line throw allowing him to sneak in with an infield single.
It was also the 51st start by a Cardinals rookie. Shelby Miller has led the way among St. Louis rookie starters, posting a 3.12 ERA, with a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate and a strikeout an inning over 30 starts. Wacha's near-no-no dropped his ERA to 2.78, with a 2.92 FIP over nine starts. Tyler Lyons (eight starts), John Gast (three starts), and Carlos Martinez (one start) have also repped St. Louis first-years. That puts the Cards in rare company.
The Jonah Keri Podcast welcomes an old favorite, ESPN's Buster Olney. First, we cover the Pirates' incredible run and their first trip to the playoffs in 21 years. Are we prognosticators whiffing on teams like Pittsburgh and Oakland because we're too focused on stars and not paying enough attention to balanced rosters and the power of analytics? Then it's on to the Reds, with Billy Hamilton talk and still more Billy Hamilton talk — is he the fastest player we've ever seen, and how can the Reds use him best? After that, we cover two recent Olney columns: The Astros and the perils of trotting out a truly awful team, and the silly practice of denying obviously deserving candidates unanimous Hall of Fame votes.
Up next, Alison Agosti, a sketch-comedy writer for Upright Citizens Brigade, contributor to The Atlantic, beleaguered Yankees fan, and Golden Age of TV consumer, joins the show. Herewith, we cover the pluses and minuses of baseball player retirement tours (and if we should use them for more mundane jobs), the best ways to watch Breaking Bad, and if The Newsroom is even worth hate-watching.
Listen to this podcast here. Subscribe to Grantland Sports on iTunes.
In case you were busy trying to shake off seeing the Raider Rusher, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
For the first time in 21 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be playing postseason baseball after clinching at least a wild-card berth with their 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. "Congratulations, I'm so happy for you guys," Cubs manager Dale Sveum told Pirates manager Clint Hurdle after the game, "we're doing great too, really, really, really great. Me and Theo, and everyone here. We're really happy." Hurdle opened his mouth to talk, but Sveum continued to speak, "and we're happy for you. But really we're just happy, so, so happy. And sure, we don't have everything you have. Who does? I mean, Andrew, what a kid. What a kid. We know all about Andrew and his exploits. I mean, our Anthony is great, but he's no Andrew. No, no he isn't." Hurdle nodded sympathetically as Sveum briefly lost his train of thought. "I'm sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes, how happy we are here as Cubs. That's the important thing; that we're happy. And you're happy. Everyone is happy." Sveum smiled, content with his self-presentation, and Hurdle didn't have the heart to tell him that his jersey had been tucked into his underwear the entire time.
Peyton Manning led the Broncos to their 14th straight regular-season win as they easily beat the Oakland Raiders 37-21 at home. Things got even worse for the Raiders as quarterback Terrelle Pryor was knocked out of the game with a concussion, or as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell referred to it, "Terrelle who? What are you talking about? Never heard of the guy in my life, have you, Mark? Terrelle Pryor?" to which NCAA president Mark Emmert responded, "Nope, Roger. Me neither. Never heard of this 'Terrelle Pryor' before. Weird."
Only two more weekends left in the regular season, and to use one of my favorite clichés, these guys have EVERYTHING to play for! Let's get to it.
10. How the Nationals Will Destroy the NL Central (MIA-WAS)
At exactly the moment in the season when it was pretty much too late, the Nationals started winning like fiends. Going back to September 3, they've put together a 13-3 streak and salvaged a very remote chance of snatching the final wild-card spot. It's still a huge long shot; with nine games remaining, they find themselves five back of the Reds. We're at the point where one Reds-win-Nats-lose night will basically sink them. On the other hand, the Reds have six games remaining against the Pirates, and as long as Pittsburgh has a shot at the NL Central title, thus avoiding the wild card, they won't be laying down for anyone. The Nationals don't have it much easier, finishing with the Pirates and Diamondbacks, but they do have three games against the Marlins this weekend. In theory, it's not insane to imagine that they could be two back with six to play on Monday. And that's a very different outlook.
So, this is how the Nationals could destroy the NL Central. First, they finish in a tie with the Reds for the final playoff spot. That would result in a one-game playoff. If the Nationals won that, they would then play the wild-card game against whoever loses the Pirates-Cardinals battle for the NL Central for argument's sake, let's say the Pirates. If they won that game, and St. Louis maintained a lead in the standings over the Dodgers, the Nats would then play the third NL Central team in the divisional round. It could be a clean sweep! Five games, and a whole division destroyed! If that happened, I would add the NL Central massacre to this Wikipedia page over and over until they let it stay.
One of the knocks on baseball’s dual wild-card system is that it leaves the winner of the play-in game at a real disadvantage, forcing the club to pitch its ace in the win-or-go-home match, then turn around and start the division series without being able to reset its rotation.
Given that reality, our collective instinct might be to look at the tight NL Central race, where the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds could all still win the division or land a wild-card berth, and wonder which of the three contenders is best equipped to recover from a one-game playoff. Only, it turns out this isn’t such an interesting question, because all three teams boast enough starting pitching depth to survive entering the NLDS with a suboptimal rotation, plus enough reliable relievers to compensate if a starter has a bad night.
It’s more interesting to examine how these three teams constructed such strong staffs, particularly the Pirates, who have been one of this season’s biggest surprises thanks largely to the unproven arms and reclamation projects who have helped them post a 3.27 team ERA, second-best in the National League.
In case you were busy getting bad news from Dr. James Andrews, because that guy has never once given good news in his life, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Miami starter Jose Fernandez dominated with his arm and bat, throwing seven stellar innings and blasting his first career home run, as the Marlins beat the division-leading Braves, 5-2. Fernandez's outing was not without controversy, however, as both benches cleared after Fernandez indulged himself by watching his home run. "I'm disappointed. He's a great kid, but he let this whole city down," said Marlins manager Mike Redmond after the game. "I mean, this is Miami. You can't just stand around in Miami to check out something because it looks good. This is a city all about hard work and discipline, not about showing off and preening."
New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter has been shut down for the remainder of the season, leaving new acquisition and defensive whiz Brendan Ryan as the Yankees presumptive starting shortstop for their playoff push. "Darn," said Yankees starter Andy Pettitte as he high-fived fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda. "Man, that's tough for Derek. I'm gutted. Just totally gutted. For him." Pettitte then did a giddy shuffle and mimed a shortstop going confidently to his left for CC Sabathia's benefit, before adding, "Don't know how we'll get by without the captain."
In case you were busy building something with your hands, ensconced in the majesty of nature, allowing the last rays of summer sun to shine down upon your shirtless back, like a nerd, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
In a Sunday night NFC East battle, the Dallas Cowboys forced six turnovers en route to a 36-31 win over the New York Giants. Eli Manning was dejected after the game, saying, "I haven't had that many turnovers since Peyton was like, 'Eli, eat all of mom's turnovers before Archie gets back from work. He'll think it's so funny.'" Eli shook his head, and added sadly, "He didn't. Old man didn't even notice. No one ever notices Eli. No one'll ever care about Eli."
In the last scheduled meeting between two longtime rivals, Michigan outlasted the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, 41-30, in Ann Arbor. "I mean, I never like losing, but it's not like they're really our rival," said Notre Dame fan Ashley O'Connell through a tightly clenched jaw. "I mean it's not like USC, or, um, Stanford; how are the Wolverines possibly our rival?" O'Connell went on to ask as she unconsciously gnawed on her already mangled thumbnail. "Really though, we have no rivals, so any loss is meaningless." O'Connell, satisfied with this line of reasoning, allowed herself a smile for the first time in 24 hours, as blood streamed out of both her ears.
In case you were busy being ready for some football, some Wednesday-night football, Wednesday-night football that is never going to come, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner back Darrelle Revis has said he's "happy to spill the beans," in advance of the Bucs' matchup with his former team, the New York Jets. "It was a nice offer," said Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, "but it's just beans." When asked to clarify Schiano added, "Seriously, their whole playbook is just a box of supposedly magic beans. Apparently they traded their old defensive playbook, which was quite good, with some sort of evil space wizard wearing a sleeveless hooded cloak, and ended up with a box of beans." Schiano, a New Jersey native shrugged and said, "I wouldn't believe it, but, you know Jets."
An all-Italian quarterfinal at the U.S. Open yielded the day's biggest upset as Flavia Pennetta beat out no. 10 seed Roberta Vinci, 6-4, 6-1. Vinci was sanguine despite her loss, saying, "I have no regrets, I came, I saw, I Vinci." Meanwhile, despite advancing to her first career Grand Slam singles semifinal, Pennetta was less pleased with her tournament experience, saying, "I have many regrets; I came, I saw, I was detained at LaGuardia Airport after an idiotic mix-up involving former CIA director Leon Panetta. I did not conquer."
Scouts grade the individual tools of prospects — power, throwing arm, speed, among others — on a scale of 20 to 80. The major league average is 50. A standard deviation above that is 60, and so on. To grab an 80 grade, a player must have truly stupendous ability. An 80 overall player is a surefire Hall of Famer, and to even have one skill graded at 80 puts someone in rare company.
In case you were busy squeezing in one last fantasy draft so that you could ironically take Mark Sanchez in the second round, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Jon Lester outdueled Max Scherzer, as the Red Sox beat the Tigers 2-1, denying Scherzer his 20th win. "I failed myself, I failed my family, and I failed my teammates," Scherzer said after the game, in which he held the best offense in baseball to two runs in seven innings while striking out eight. "Why didn't I pitch to the game score! I never would have allowed that two-RBI single had I just been pitching situationally!"
Serena Williams entered the semifinals of the U.S. Open in dominant form, after routing 18th-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain 6-0, 6-0. When asked if anyone in the field could even take a set off of her, a humble Serena responded, "On any day any of these women could beat me over three sets." When asked if any of them could beat her on a specific day, Williams shrugged and said, "Well, no. Maybe if the psychological impact of a really moving David Foster Wallace profile hit me? But he's dead, so, um, no."
Three games into the biggest stretch of their season, the Cardinals have taken two out of three against the Reds, seizing first place in the NL Central.
Still, the race is far from over. The Cards have 29 games left to hold on to their lead. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Reds lead in the race for the two wild-card spots, and remain in the hunt to catch St. Louis — Pittsburgh is just a half-game behind, with Cincinnati 3½ games out. Baseball's most compelling race could swing on any number of factors. Here are some we're watching closely.
In case you were too gobsmacked by stories about the side effects of PCP abuse, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
On the eve of the college football season, the NCAA investigation of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel reached its conclusion, with Manziel receiving a 30-minute suspension for signing autographs that were later sold for profit after the NCAA could not prove he was compensated for the autographs he signed. God, I can't I just can't moving on
Venus Williams was ousted from the U.S. Open in the second round, falling to China's Zheng Jie, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5). After the match, Williams I'm sorry Thirty minutes? A 30-minute suspension? What the hell is that? Does that please anyone other than worshipers of the macabre? What the fuck? Seriously? Seriously OK, I'll be cool After the match, Williams, a two-time winner of the What the hell does he do during the first half? Can he be on the bench? Does he have to sit awkwardly in the locker room alone? Can he spend that time signing autographs? What kind of message is this sending? And what of the poor schmucks at Rice who have to plan both for a Manziel-led A&M and a completely different looking offense in the first half? Only the NCAA could punish Manziel in a way that negatively affects the Owls of Rice. I'm sorry, back to tennis. After the match, Williams, a two-time winner of the event, said, "I just can't fucking believe they'd suspend Manziel for 30 minutes. That's goddamn insane. The crime he committed was preposterously innocuous in the first place, and the fact that he committed it was preposterously stupid. Only the NCAA could end up with a punishment that could match his actions in preposterousness, stupidity, and innocuousness. Also, I'm retiring from competitive tennis because why even do sports at this point. Also, think of the implications with regard to the coin flip. Think of the implications! This is so fucking stupid." Um that's what Venus Williams said after being eliminated from the U.S. Open just trust me moving on