Margin of error gone in Wild Card Game
Reds' 2013 fate rests on one more matchup in Pittsburgh
Six months. One hundred sixty-two games. At least 1,458 innings of baseball.
And it all comes down to this: a 163rd game.
Given the longevity of a season of baseball, perhaps the most grueling season in professional sports, it seems almost cruel.
But it's the sealed fate of the Cincinnati Reds.
They needed to win two of three against a resurgent Pirates team in order to host the National League Wild Card Game Tuesday at Great American Ball Park.
They dropped the first two, making Sunday's result inconsequential.
Now, they'll meet the Buccos at PNC Park Tuesday evening. And it's not unreasonable to say that this Reds team, the one Dusty Baker has trotted out throughout 2013, lives and dies with that game.
There is no promise that this team and all its parts will be back together again next year. Longtime Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo and leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo -- who leads the team in runs and stolen bases -- are the two most notable names set to be free agents.
Arroyo was the man shouldering the loss Saturday, having been touched up by the Pirates for five home runs.
The responsibility now falls squarely on the shoulders of ace Johnny Cueto, who will have a chance to redeem himself after exiting last year's NL Division Series after just one-third of an inning with an injury that would flare up again this year and keep him out of the picture for most of this season.
Or Cueto could just as easily become the goat once more.
That's the beauty and danger of a one-game playoff.
And despite disappointing performances Friday and Saturday, the Reds are choosing to focus on the beauty part.
"This is one game," said Baker. "It depends on who gets the best pitched game and who gets the two-out RBIs and plays the best fundamental baseball. Tuesday is a new day. This hurts big time, but you can't bring it back and you can't dwell on it. You've got to start over again."
No matter what the outcome, it's going to be one agonizing night for Reds fans.
The Cueto question can swing either way. He's had an injury-plagued 2013 but looked good in his last few starts. He didn't last long in the postseason last year, but he has the Pirates batting a paltry .209 against him.
So while pessimists point to Cueto's early exit last year, there's the inescapable fact that the rest of the rotation put together a remarkable face-saver after losing their ace.
The Reds thrived on the postseason pressure in San Francisco last October, taking both games at AT&T Park -- but then dropped three straight games on their own home turf to lose the series.
Take that evidence and interpret it how you will.
Will it be a blessing or a curse?
I'm as nervous as you are.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.