It was a day of firsts. I took my daughter, Sidney, to her first-ever circus, a long, loud two-and-a-half-hour affair at Denver Coliseum. And then we watched the real Greatest Show on Earth: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, awash in a sea of black that rivaled a raucous Sunday at Oakland Coliseum, hosting its first-ever playoff series along the Allegheny River.
Game three of the 2013 NLDS between the Cardinals and Pirates was about as exciting as playoff baseball gets, short of extra innings. With three-year-old Sidney, who toured PNC Park with me in July and got to run on the field, dancing from room to room saying, “Let’s go Pedro,” young Pedro “El Toro” Alvarez continued hitting hot in his first-ever playoffs. With two on and the score 3-3 in the eighth, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny having gone to the lefty Carlos Martinez to face Alvarez (who batted .180 vs southpaws in the regular season), El Toro stroked a hard single to right, scoring little Josh Harrison all the way from second base. The record crowd at PNC Park – even bigger if you count the people watching from buildings downtown and even from the Roberto Clemente Bridge – erupted like it was game seven of the 1960 World Series, and I lost it.
“I don’t know if you’re smiling or crying,” by daughter said. I told her it was just mad jubilation, and she gave me a high five as we hopped around the living room together.
If I have to explain it, you probably won’t understand. Before the Pirates embarrassed my hometown from 1993 through 2012, no fans in sports history had ever experienced 20 consecutive losing seasons from their team, in any sport. Thus, no fans in sports history, before today, had seen their team break out of a historic, depression-inducing losing-seasons streak to not only finally finish over .500 but celebrate the destruction of that sad streak by doing real damage in the playoffs.
After losing (badly) game one of the NLDS in St. Louis and punishing the Cardinals 7-1 in game two, the series came to Pittsburgh this afternoon and the Pirates – with their over-capacity crowd unleashing 21 years of pent-up energy on an unfortunate St. Louis ballclub – did not disappoint. But it wasn’t easy.
Mercurial 29-year-old Pirates ace Francisco Liriano, who dominated the Cincinnati Reds when the Pirates won the NL Wild Card game on Tuesday, played the game today with pretty severe symptoms from a lingering cold. And he was not sharp. His velocity was there, but Liriano had a lot of trouble throwing strikes, and probably should’ve been pulled in the fifth inning when he got into serious trouble. As the national announcers commented, like Thursday in St. Louis, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle failed to have anyone warming up when his veteran starter was clearly struggling (Liriano allowed two straight walks to start the inning) and then failed to bring in a fresh arm to try and get the mighty Carlos Beltran with two on and two out. Liriano, whose pitch count was fast approaching 90 in less than 5 innings, gave up a single to Beltran and the Cards tied the game at 2-2.
But the upstart Pirates memorably did not back down from adversity. Liriano admirably fought through the sixth with action in the bullpen, dependable lefty Tony Watson pitched a scoreless seventh, setup man Mark Melancon gave up a game-tying leadoff homer in the eighth but allowed no further damage, and – after the Bucs scored two in the bottom of the eighth on Alvarez’s single and an insurance RBI single from scrappy catcher Russell Martin, grizzly Jason Grilli got his first-ever playoff save in a pleasantly uneventful ninth.
As Penny Lane says in Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.”
I’ll say it now – even if the Pirates lose the next two, this will be a remarkable season that every Pittsburgh fan will look back upon fondly, especially the few of us who never stopped following the team through the unprecedented pain of 20 straight losing seasons.
But we’ve been here before. First it was “If they just finish over .500.” Then “If they just make the playoffs.” Then “If they just host the Wildcard game at home.” Then “If they just win the Wilcard game and get into a series.” Then “If they can just give the fans the thrill of one playoff win in this series.” Now…
…who knows what will happen, but this reminds me a lot of the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who barely made the playoffs and then shocked the sports world by battling to a championship with two shutdown pitchers, an exciting rookie catcher in Buster Posey, a lights-out bullpen, and some clutch hitting from unlikely sources (see: Cody Ross). The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates have, when they’re on, a great bullpen, three real shutdown pitchers in A.J. Burnett (who had zilch in game one), Gerrit Cole (who blew away the Cards in game two and, in my mind, should’ve started game one), and Francisco Liriano. They also have better hitting than the 2010 Giants, with a probable NL MVP-winner in Andrew McCutchen; a clutch-hitting beast in Marlon Byrd; a dangerous young power hitter in Alvarez (36 HR in the regular season and at least an RBI in every NLDS game so far; and a surprising breakthrough hitter in the aforementioned Martin.
To me, the only major problems the Pirates have are a now-shaky setup man in Melancon, who seems to give up at least one run in pretty major situations lately, and the repeatedly questionable in-game managing of Clint Hurdle. Again, Hurdle left a clearly struggling veteran starter in too long, though today that resulted in a game-tying inning instead of a fatal inning. Again, Hurdle gave a start to his buddy Clint Barmes, who is good but not great at shortstop and has been one of the worst hitters in all of baseball the last two seasons. I was amazed that Barmes got the start today over young Jordy Mercer, who is underrated defensively (higher fielding % than the aging Barmes) and is known for big hits. But I was even more amazed, like the TBS announcers (including World Series champion manager Bob Brenly), that Hurdle lifted Barmes – whose only excuse for ever getting into a major-league game this day is his “plus defense,” as Pirates’ management calls it – for a pinch-hitter (Jose Tabata, who grounded out to end the 6th) in a game in which the Pirates had just taken the lead in the late innings. Luckily the Pirates held on to win, but Hurdle would never have heard the end of it from the press and fans had Barmes’ replacement, Mercer, had let an important run go past him.
I’m not the only one criticizing Hurdle. TBS’ announcers, from the play-by-play guys to studio analyst Pedro Martinez, have repeatedly shown shock and awe in the face of Hurdle continuing to bat struggling Justin Morneau (0 HR, 3 RBI as a Pirate) cleanup over Marlon Byrd (4 HR, 22 RBI as a Pirate). As I told my cousin Carson, a Penn State student, over text during today’s game: If Morneau makes another out with men on and Byrd on deck, I’m going to need therapy. It’s absurd. TBS’ announcers have also, as I mentioned before, continued to berate Hurdle for not warming anyone up when trouble brews for his veteran starting pitchers, preferring – unlike virtually every other manager in a playoff game – to wait until damage has already been done to think about getting someone else ready. That’s no way to handle a postseason game, unless Hurdle is saving his heralded bullpen for, I don’t know, spring training.
Alas, the story here is that the Battlin’ Buccos of 2013 – who most predicted to finish somewhere between 68 and 78 wins – amazingly won 94 games in the regular season and are one win away from the National League Championship Series.
Charlie Morton takes the hill for the Pittsburgh on the North Side tomorrow against the Cards at 1pm MST. Here’s hoping “Ground Chuck” induces a boatload of ground balls on the way to a series victory for the Pirates tomorrow.
It’s all happening.