Last weekend the Pittsburgh Pirates swept the Cincinnati Reds. They only needed two wins for home field advantage in the Wild Card game. At the time that sounded good, mostly due to how well Francisco Liriano pitches at home. What was underplayed was the impact of the home crowd. In the second inning, the fans at PNC Park showed the advantage that home field can have.
Marlon Byrd led off the inning with a home run off Johnny Cueto. That put the Pirates up 1-0. Two batters later, Russell Martin came to the plate. The fans were loud from the start of the game, but suddenly a booming “CUE-TO” chant started. And immediately Cueto dropped the ball.
That’s not a metaphor. Standing on the mound, Cueto actually dropped the ball out of his glove. It rolled down the mound. With PNC Park trolling him by chanting his name, Cueto had to step off the rubber, walk a few steps, and pick up the ball. The Cue-to chants resumed, and it’s probably not a coincidence that in that same at-bat, Russell Martin launched a solo homer.
“It probably played a part in it, no question,” Martin said. “It definitely broke his rhythm a little bit. I mean he smiled, I chuckled too. And then somebody had to make it happen. He left a pitch over the plate, and I took a good swing.”
Cueto struggled the rest of the inning, although he didn’t give up any more runs in the second. But the chants continued, and Cueto was hit around. In the third he gave up an infield single to Andrew McCutchen to lead off the game. Then, with one out, Marlon Byrd hit a hard grounder that Zack Cozart booted. Instead of a possible double play, the Pirates had runners at first and third. The run came in when Pedro Alvarez hit a sacrifice fly to center. Cueto was done in the fourth inning when Starling Marte hit a one out double to third. The run later scored, giving Cueto four runs on the night, three earned.
Coming into the game, the Reds looked to be dead even with the Pirates as far as the pitching matchup went. Cueto had dominated the Pirates. He had an 0.73 ERA in 12.1 innings in two starts this year, and a career 2.37 ERA in 133 innings against the Pirates, including a 1.90 ERA in 85.1 innings at PNC Park. And yet two syllables chanted over and over by 40,487 was enough to remove Cueto in less than four innings.
Dusty Baker talked about the chants after the game, and didn’t think it impacted his pitcher.
“I don’t think that impacted him,” Baker said. “He couldn’t get the ball where he wanted. Usually he can throw that ball through the eye of a needle. Tonight he was up. If you’ve ever been to winter ball, I mean, that was quiet compared to the Dominican where he’s from. I don’t think it impacted him at all. If anything, it inspired them. I don’t think it really impacted him.”
Clint Hurdle didn’t say that the chants had an impact on Cueto, but he did say that it might have boosted the Pirates.
“I think it perks our guys up. I can’t speak to anybody else,” Hurdle said. “I haven’t heard that. That’s a hockey move right there. That’s for the goalie. That’s when I took from it. It’s a sign that you got a chance to get something good done. You got a chance to push somebody maybe off the mound, out of the goal. Very similar circumstances. But our crowd, I mean, the blackout, the towels, all of it, the electricity, it’s something I don’t think anybody that was here tonight will forget for a long, long time.”
Marlon Byrd likened it to the Phillies chanting “Larry” at Chipper Jones in the playoffs.
“I haven’t heard fans chanting someone’s name in the playoffs since the Braves played the Phillies and everyone was chanting ‘Larry.’ If that got to Cueto or not, I don’t know,” Byrd said. “I can’t wait to see it when we get back.”
The chanting may or may not have had an impact on Cueto. But it’s hard to deny the correlation. The chants started, Cueto dropped the ball off the mound, immediately gave up a home run, and fell apart. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe it’s home field advantage.