PITTSBURGH -- At this time last year during the playoffs, Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco was more of a spectator than an active participant. Mesoraco struggled throughout his rookie season of 2012, hardly played in September and was left off of the postseason roster in October in favor of Dioner Navarro. He remained with the club as an extra player in case he needed to be added.
Mesoraco did not start Tuesday's National League Wild Card Game, because Ryan Hanigan usually catches starting pitcher Johnny Cueto. But Mesoraco did enter behind the plate during the seventh inning and went 0-for-1 with a popup before the Reds fell to the Pirates, 6-2.
"I still feel like I was part of the team last year. At the same time, I wasn't able to play," said Mesoraco, who hails from nearby Punxsutawney, Pa. "I think it's definitely more exciting for me to be out there playing than it is sitting on the bench cheering on the guys. I'm definitely looking forward to being out there and help getting us some playoff wins."
Although he batted .238 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs in 103 games, Mesoraco was still perhaps the Reds' most improved player this season -- especially with his catching. He caught two of the pitching staff's five complete games and seven of the 17 shutouts.
"For me, I feel like defensively was my biggest improvement," Mesoraco said. "The second half, there hasn't been too many wild pitches or passed balls or anything that got by. My throwing improved a lot. That's my biggest concern -- my catching."
Baker keeps Ludwick in No. 2 spot for Wild Card
PITTSBURGH -- Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick was used in the No. 2 spot of manager Dusty Baker's lineup only three times in the regular season. It happened to be the final three games of the year vs. the Pirates.
The results weren't positive. Ludwick went 0-for-9 with a walk, and the Reds went winless in those games. For Tuesday's National League Wild Card Game at Pittsburgh, Baker kept Ludwick in the second spot -- for multiple reasons, some of which have to do with scenarios in the later innings.
"Late in the game, I usually take him out, and the guys I replace him with are No. 2 hitters," Baker said. "I can have the choice of either putting them right in that spot or in the ninth spot. Then it's not as important who hits before Joey [Votto], if it's a pitcher when I double-switch, as it is who is hitting behind Joey."
Ludwick had three of the Reds' six hits, including two doubles, in Cincinnati's 6-2 season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
Ludwick, who returned in September after missing four months because of right shoulder surgery, is often lifted in the late innings in favor of Chris Heisey or Derrick Robinson. Speedy rookie Billy Hamilton was also an option to pinch-run for Ludwick.
Brandon Phillips was put behind the left-handed Votto in the No. 4 spot, and lefty hitter Jay Bruce was slotted fifth. Pittsburgh started lefty pitcher Francisco Liriano and had lefties Tony Watson and Justin Wilson in the bullpen.
"Plus, Brandon has been so good in the No. 4 hole," Baker said. "Especially against these guys, you've got to break up Jay and Joey, because they have two of the best left-handers around -- they can bring in one and take care of both of them. Even though Jay has hit better against left-handers, he hasn't hit those guys -- very few have."
With the exception of ninth, where the pitcher hits, the second spot was the least productive in the regular season for the Reds, with a .228 average and a .281 on-base percentage. Baker has tried Phillips, Zack Cozart, Heisey and Todd Frazier, among others.
"We've had a problem with that No. 2 hitter. We've tried about everybody," Baker said. "Brandon didn't do as well there as we thought either. When I had Ludwick at four, he was really frustrated he was not quite himself. They were walking Joey intentionally or unintentionally. Every time he'd leave somebody on base, he'd get more and more frustrated. I could see it."
In previous meetings against Liriano over his career, Ludwick was 4-for-9.
Hamilton not considered to start Wild Card Game
PITTSBURGH -- Blazin' Billy Hamilton is as big a superstar as a pinch-runner can reasonably be.
But while Hamilton's impact on the Reds has been immediate enough to earn him a spot on the postseason roster, manager Dusty Baker wasn't quite ready to upgrade him from his current bench role in the National League Wild Card Game against the Pirates.
"People are making a starter out of him ahead of schedule because he's so exciting," Baker said. "But let's not forget he just started switch-hitting a year ago. He just started playing center field a year ago. He has some things to learn offensively, because, remember, he was hitting .251 [in Triple-A Louisville]."
Besides, Baker had no intention of resting center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, or corner outfielders Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, for that matter.
But the Reds certainly saw enough value in Hamilton's legs -- he stole 13 bases in 14 attempts after his September promotion -- to keep him around.
"I try to put guys in a situation where they'll most likely succeed," Baker said.
Hamilton did not see action in the Reds' 6-2 season-ending loss.
Year removed from stroke, Baker more focused
PITTSBURGH -- A prevailing memory from Reds manager Dusty Baker's postseason news conferences last year was not just discussion about the National League Division Series against the Giants but his articulation of his appreciation for the little things -- the chirping of the birds, the clouds in the sky -- in the wake of his mild stroke a couple weeks prior.
Baker articulated all these things well, which is why it was surprising to hear him reveal before Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game against the Pirates just how much trepidation he had about talking to the media so soon after his medical ordeal.
"Probably what I'm most proud of, of me," Baker said, "is the fact that last year at this time, I was two weeks removed from my stroke. I wasn't as clear-headed then as I am now."
Baker said he and his family were nervous about his condition at such a pivotal point in the season and in the midst of such a demanding schedule.
"It was difficult to come here in this setting, in this interview room," he said, "because there were a lot of things I couldn't think of, a lot of times I couldn't put things into words the way I'd like to ordinarily."
Baker had no trouble finding his words Tuesday. And though there was ultimately disappointment in the Reds not winning the NL Central and having to face the Buccos in this win-or-go-home atmosphere, Baker said he is proud to have reached the postseason three times in four seasons.
"It's not about having pride in myself," he said. "I'm proud to have been with these young players from the time a lot of them just got to the big leagues. I've been the only manager that some of them have had."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.