Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — The Cincinnati Reds have learned how to reach the postseason. Winning once they get there, however, remains elusive.
Johnny Cueto struggled with his command and a raucous crowd that relentlessly taunted him as the Reds fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-2 on Tuesday night in the NL wild-card game.
The Reds, who won 90 games and reached the playoffs for the third time in four years, once again failed to advance even a single round. Cincinnati has dropped four straight postseason games and 11 of its last 13.
"It's unfortunately been a bit like déjà vu," first baseman Joey Votto said. "Really disappointing."
And all too familiar.
Cincinnati insisted its slide in the final week of the regular season — including a sweep at home last weekend by Pittsburgh that moved the wild-card game to PNC Park — wouldn't matter thanks to the blank slate the playoffs provide.
Maybe, but the team that spent most of the season locked in a three-way race with the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals for the top spot in the NL Central never showed up. The Reds managed just four hits off Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano, fell behind early and limped back to Cincinnati after another quick exit.
"The Pirates played better today, better offensively and certainly pitched better," Votto said. "But that's not to discredit Johnny. Every single time there's a game like that I'd certainly want him on the mound. Just one of those games."
And one of those years, a successful one by most standards but not for a team picked as a possible World Series contender back in March.
"Having good seasons and winning in the regular season's all fine and dandy but you play ... to win championships and we haven't been able to get it done," outfielder Jay Bruce said. "We have to figure out a way to do a better job."
One the Pirates seem to have finally gotten down after spending 20 years at the bottom of the standings.
In front of a black-clad crowd savoring its first postseason game since 1992, Russell Martin homered twice, Marlon Byrd also connected and Andrew McCutchen had two hits and reached base four times for Pittsburgh.
"We're for real," McCutchen said. "We're definitely for real."
Pittsburgh travels to St. Louis for Game 1 of the NL division series on Thursday. A.J. Burnett will face ace Adam Wainwright as the Pirates try to prove they're no longer just a feel-good story.
"We didn't talk about one and done, we talked about one and run," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Win one and run to St. Louis."
Byrd, acquired by the Pirates in late August from the New York Mets, celebrated the first postseason at bat of his 12-year career — 1,250 games — by sending Cueto's fastball into the seats to give the Pirates the lead in the second. The shot sent another jolt through an already electric crowd, which began singing "Cue-to, Cue-to" in unison when Martin stepped in.
Cueto laughed when asked about hearing his name sung by 40,000 people.
"When you're pitching you don't listen to fans, you just concentrate and see the hitter," he said.
Baker backed Cueto before the game, saying his ace "thrives on this environment." Maybe, but the right-hander never looked comfortable in a place where he usually dominates. Cueto, who came in 8-2 at the ballpark by the Allegheny River, even lost his grip on the ball while standing on the mound as Martin stepped in one batter after Byrd's homer.
A moment later, he lost his grip on the game.
Martin's 405-foot shot to left-center gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead and all the momentum Liriano would require.