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Three keys for Pirates in NL Wild Card Game

McCutchen must find way out of slump; how 'pen clicks could be decisive

The Pirates have waited a long time for this. Their fans have waited two decades to cheer for a winner. But before the Bucs can roll up their sleeves for a more conventional postseason series, they have to get by the Cincinnati Reds in the one-or-done National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday at PNC Park, with the first pitch scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET.

Starting pitching often carries the day on such an occasion. If Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano or the Reds' Johnny Cueto brings his true A-game, either could make all the other angles moot.

Move the game beyond the possibility of such one-man domination, however, and three factors become game-changers for the Bucs.

Andrew McCutchen:

The bad news is, the Pirates' Most Valuable Player candidate stumbled down the stretch. Even with a two-hit game, including a home run, on Saturday, McCutchen went 5-for-32 (.156) in his last nine games. That's also the good news: McCutchen's slumps are short, and he comes out of them on fire.

He has also been a player who rises to to the occasion, and what bigger occasion can there be than a playoff game in front of a PNC Park crowd that will serenade him with chants of "MVP! MVP!" McCutchen has hit three homers off Cueto.

The bullpen end-game:

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has gone out of his way the last two weeks to get Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli back into their old roles and rhythm, when they were the setup and closing teeth in the Pirates' Shark Tank. Before Grilli's late-July forearm injury forced a shakeup, the Bucs were 27-2 with Melancon in the eighth and Grilli in the ninth.

We haven't seen that combination since. But Hurdle is committed to going back to it if the Pirates have the lead after seven innings. How they click could determine whether the Bucs advance.

Gerrit Cole:

This may seem a bizarre choice, considering not only is he not scheduled to pitch, but the Pirates hope he doesn't have to pitch, since his presence on the mound would indicate they are in trouble. But this is not necessarily true if you consider the circumstances: There has been no middle ground with Liriano. Most of the time, he has been fantastic from start to finish. But the few times he has been off his game, it became apparent quickly, with few signs of correction.

Given that track record, and with Cole standing by, any early signs of the bad Liriano would result in a quick hook. Then the Pirates' postseason would fall on the right arm of the rookie right-hander who will be psyched for the opportunity. His fastball and his emotion on the mound could spark the Pirates if they have to switch into comeback mode.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Jason Grilli, Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon