"TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES"

All things considered, it’s only fair that the 2013 season culminates to a nine inning showcase that determines if the previous 162 are validated. Right Reds fans? The season has been compared to everything from a ride on King’s Island’s “Beast” to a trip to the dentist’s office. And now after seven months of consistent inconsistency, the Reds will enter the Thunderdome.  Shotgun baseball, a blitzkrieg lightning round to decide who meets the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis.

In one corner, a team on the brink – the Reds started their maturation in 2010 when they met a star-laden Phillies team in the NLDS.

Sep 23, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) pitches during the first inning against the New York Mets at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

After a short series that mimicked a deer in headlights, the Reds took a step back before finally realizing their potential in 2012 en route to another NL Central title. In this corner, you’ll hear the words “World Series” if you listen closely enough. This corner is loaded with expectations, which isn’t shared by the opposing corner.

The Pirates have just ended a 22 year playoff drought. The team is a healthy blend of young stars maturing into their prime mixed with assorted veterans with playoff experience. Though the people in Pittsburgh have their hopes high, this Pirates team is playing with house money. The expectations for a team that hasn’t played baseball in October for 22 years are hardly weighing on anyone’s minds. Clint Hurdle’s probably not worried about job security from his vantage point. But alas, despite two vastly different back stories, the Pirates and Reds have both arrived at the same spot.

One game, nine innings, to decide what the previous 162 obviously couldn’t. The winner will play a five game series with the Cardinals and continue the 2013 narrative. The loser will close the book after a hastened final chapter. Losing game 163 would resemble the ending of The Sopranos. All the main characters gather on one screen before suddenly turning black when the credits role for the final time, minus the Journey. Of course, losing your final six games to end the year may seem more likened to Walter White’s remote machine gun ending where everything is obliterated, including himself.

The Pirates are definitely talented, and after sweeping the final series of the year at Great American Ball Park, they’re just as confident. Now that they have home field advantage, they’ll send Francisco Liriano to the hill, whose ERA at home is only 1.47. To counter, the Reds were originally going to send Mat Latos, the man many have tried to classify as an ace – and why not? Latos turns in a 14-7 record with a 3.16 ERA. That’s certainly ace-like. But while Latos is destined to be a premiere ace in this league, the fact remains that right now, on September 30 of 2013, he is not this team’s ace. On Tuesday, with 2013 up for grabs, the Reds are luckily able to hand the ball to their bona fide, de facto ace: Johnny Cueto.

What is an ace? If you guessed, “a team’s best pitcher,” you’re only partially accurate. I argue that it’s much more than that. An ace is the best pitcher on a rotation, but the rotation is hardly a measure of one’s ability. An ace is much bigger than the rotation he heads. If you are an ace, you are one of the very best pitchers this game – both AL and NL – can offer. Mat Latos is a very good pitcher, but Johnny Cueto is masterful.

You already know the numbers: Cueto at PNC Park boasts a ridiculous 8-2 record with a 1.90 ERA after 13 career games pitched. While that doesn’t necessarily say anything about tomorrow’s contest, it illustrates a history of dominance at PNC not shared by Mat Latos, who is also 3-0 in Pittsburgh but with an ERA of 2.87. Still really good, but since we’re talking aces, really good isn’t the best endorsement. Really good is finishing a year 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA, like Latos did in 2012. Reds fans would probably take that from anyone, except when we remember Johnny Cueto ended 2012 with a 19-9 record and a 2.78 ERA - that was fifth best in MLB. Cueto was receiving Cy Young votes.

See the difference?

Jun 28, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) pauses between pitches to the Texas Rangers during the first inning of a baseball game at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Dusty Baker, the Cincinnati Reds and all of its fans were robbed at what felt like gunpoint. The Cy Young vote-getting right-handed Dominican didn’t manage to record even one inning of post season baseball as his season and any hopes the Reds had at making a run at a World Series evaporated with a painful twist to Cueto’s oblique. Mat Latos lessened the impact with a memorable spot-start performance, but when games four and give came back around, the Reds ultimately sank without the ability to send their best pitcher to the bump. Dusty Baker is hoping this year is a lot different. Because if the Reds want to continue this crazy 2013 story, Johnny Cueto will need to finally do what every ace is called upon to do. The Reds have lost five straight, matching a season worst. On Tuesday, they hand the ball the Johnny Cueto, a certified stopper. He’s the red light. The stop sign. He’s Gandalph in the caves, turning to face the giant Jolly Roger Balrog, shouting “Usted no debe pasar!” (you shall not pass in English).

Before 2013, you were convinced this team could win a title. That was when Cueto stood happily and healthy at the top of the Reds rotation. That was when the two-spot and clean-up positionsweren’t variables. That was before losing one of baseball’s most expensive set-up crews. But despite everything the Reds have endured, the 90 wins garnered have earned them an extra life. Despite everything, the Reds still have a chance to validate the expectations with the same team that excited you in April. Just one more continue to use at the Game Over screen. And with everything on the line, with the sanity of every fan in Cincinnati clinging by finger nail, the Reds will ask their ace to stop the skid, stop the Pirates and send us all on at least one more ride around the old wooden tracks.

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Friday, Sep 1919 Sep7:15at St. Louis CardinalsBuy Tickets

Tags: Cincinnati Reds MLB Playoffs Pittsburgh Pirates

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