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.
Signed on the cheap in the offseason after a mediocre 2012 split between the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox, Liriano has been reborn in Pittsburgh. He went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA during the regular season, his devastating slider nearly unhittable against left-handers.
The Reds proved no match. Joey Votto went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. Jay Bruce produced an RBI single in the fourth but Cincinnati never really threatened on a night baseball officially returned to Pittsburgh after a 20-year trek through purgatory.
Shin-Soo Choo homered in the eighth, a drive to right field that was upheld by video review. Ryan Ludwick followed with a double off reliever Tony Watson but Votto and Brandon Phillips grounded out quietly to first.
Pittsburgh closer Jason Grilli retired the Reds in order in the ninth, and Cincinnati slumped off the field while the Pirates released decades of frustration.
The same kind of frustration that is starting to mount for the Reds.
Cueto, who made three different trips to the disabled list this season with a strained lat, was pressed into service when projected starter Mat Latos discovered bone chips in his right (throwing) elbow.
At the time, it seemed like an upgrade. It wasn't. The Pirates made it 3-0 on sacrifice fly in the third by Pedro Alvarez and Cueto was pulled when Starling Marte doubled with one out in the fourth. Marte sprinted home on local boy Neil Walker's double off reliever Sean Marshall and Walker scored on a fielder's choice by Byrd to make it 5-1.
"They outpitched us and they outhit us," Baker said. "Usually that's something that we do. It's very difficult to come down to one game, especially the way we played. We got outplayed big time."
NOTES: The Reds have lost four straight playoff games and 11 of their last 13 ... Martin is the first catcher to homer for three different teams in the postseason. He previously hit playoff homers for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 and the New York Yankees in 2012 ... Liriano is the first Pittsburgh left-hander to win a playoff game since John Candelaria in Game 3 of the 1979 World Series ... Byrd is the oldest player to homer in his first postseason at-bat, according to STATS.
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