The Pirates play tonight for the right to play for the National League pennant.
How did that happen?
How did they get here?
Six moments stand out above all the rest of the list of unforgettable occurrences along the way from oblivion to October in St. Louis:
No. 6: Aug. 16, 2012: “Hashtag-STFD”
After hitting a home run off A.J. Burnett in the fourth inning at PNC Park, LA’s Hanley Ramirez circled the bases and gestured to the LA dugout, as had been the Dodgers’ habit at the time, by making circles around his eyes with his fingers.
On the mound, Burnett seethed.
And after striking Ramirez out in the sixth, Burnett responded with a suggestion that the Dodgers’ hotdog “sit the (expletive) down.”
Burnett then continued to seethe as he left the playing field.
The Pirates’ great collapse of 2012 had already commenced by then, but a new Pirates’ culture was spawned that afternoon.
No. 5 _ June 2, 2013: “Take Me to the River”
Down 4-0 after the top of the first, the Pirates rallied to beat the Cincinnati Reds, 5-4, in 11 innings.
Garrett Jones tied it in the eighth with a two-run blast that landed in the Allegheny.
The bullpen, from Vin Mazzaro to Bryan Morris to Mark Melancon to Jason Grilli to Justin Wilson, picked up Jeanmar Gomez with 10 innings of five-hit, shutout relief.
Travis Snider delivered the game-winning single.
“It was believable,” skipper Clint Hurdle insisted. “It was a believable win because we believed we could do it.”
The victory averted a sweep at the hands of Cincinnati and suggested Pittsburgh, at 35-22, wouldn’t be going away this time.
No. 4 _ Sept. 9, 2013: “Screw Yu”
After having been swept in St. Louis by the lopsided scores of 12-8, 5-0 and 9-2, the Pirates ventured to Texas.
Waiting for them there was Rangers ace Yu Darvish.
But Darvish was out-dueled by Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole, who blazed seven three-hit, shutout innings in a 1-0 Pirates triumph.
At 82-61 the Buccos served notice that they still weren’t going away.
Said Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus of Cole: “That guy was really good. If he pitches like that every start he’ll be the National League Cy Young winner.”
No. 3 _ Sept. 18, 2013: “Barry Who?”
The Pirates lost to the Padres, 3-2, when Melancon uncharacteristically blew a save by allowing a pair of ninth-inning runs.
Pittsburgh’s 2-1 lead had been provided by Andrew McCutchen, who hit a two-run homer in the seventh.
The shot was McCutchen’s 20th of the season and made him the first Pirates player to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in three consecutive seasons since Barry Bonds in 1990, 1991 and 1992.
That statistical plateau confirmed once and for all what Pittsburgh already knew, that McCutchen is an MVP-caliber star the mold of a pre-juicehead, Pittsburgh-era Barry Bonds.
Unlike Bonds, McCutchen has continued to produce in the postseason (he’s become more like Clemente in that way).
Now if only Bob Costas would stop referring to McCutchen as “Lawrence.”
No. 1 (tied) _ Oct. 13, 2013: “Cue-to, Cue-to, Cue-to”
Perhaps the most vocal, the most intense and the most impactful crowd in Pittsburgh baseball history rattled Reds starter Johnny Cueto into literally dropping the ball in
the National League Wild Card Game.
Cueto melted down in between surrendering dingers to Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin.
Bucs starter Francisco Liriano had no such issues, and primed the crowd’s pump via a one-two-three top of the first.
“As soon as he got those first three outs I felt like it was going to be a good day for
him,” Martin said.
There have been few better days in recent Pirates history.
No. 1 (tied) _ Oct. 6, 2013: “Big Knock, Pedro, Big Knock”
After blowing leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in Game 3 against St. Louis, the Pirates found themselves tied with the Cards in the bottom of the eighth.
Pedro Alvarez untied it, not with a home run this time but with an RBI-single off previously all-but-unhittable lefty Kevin Siegrist.
Alvarez hitting any lefty in any circumstance constitutes an unlikely, almost magical happening.
To do it against Siegrist with Game 4 on the line almost defies reality.
Who had that?
The winning is what matters most, but the approach has contributed mightily and is likewise defining the Pirates this postseason.
Game 3 against St. Louis was the latest example. The Pirates blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 and then eventually put the game away during an eighth inning that saw a
game-tying home run surrendered and a base-running gaffe committed before the Pirates untied it once and for all.
That achieved for the Pirates a two-games-to-one lead in a series that saw them beaten 9-1 for openers.
That resiliency has been honed all season and is now on display when the Pirates need it the most.
It shows what can happen when a manager sells what Clint Hurdle has been selling so enthusiastically and talented players buy in wholeheartedly.
And the perspective they’ve adopted along the way shows up when the Pirates win as well as when they lose. And that can and has been just as significant, particularly
in the postseason when circumstances are ramped up so dramatically and momentum can swing so rapidly.
All season Hurdle has stressed the need to “shower it off” and move on after a loss.
But recall, also, his public advice to his Pirates after the Reds had been slayed in the National League Wild Card Game:
“There’s two kinds of people that play this game, those that are humble and those that are about to be. So when you got some momentum, you’re getting some things done you just stay with it. You don’t take things for granted. You don’t over-cook or over-analyze the other club. You just play to your strengths, play to your
abilities, find a way to put people away and move on.”
That consistency of approach has paid off all season.
And it should ensure that even an elimination game this afternoon, a potential Game 5 in St. Louis or whatever might be down the road won’t be too big for the
“Nothing’s gonna change,” Andrew McCutchen maintained after Game 3. “The game doesn’t change even though the game’s important. That’s what Clint Hurdle always says, now we’re gonna go out there and treat it like that.”
From the skipper’s mouth to McCutchen’s ears (and his .538 batting average and .667 on-base
What’s been working so far continues to work for the Bucs.
Marc-Andre Fleury showed the Penguins what they wanted to see, perhaps what they needed to see, in the opener against New Jersey.
Brooks Orpik wanted it understood after Fleury’s 24th career shutout and 250th career victory that he appreciates the way Fleury has been going about his business in an effort to deliver such performances.
It's not always going to work out as well as it did against the Devils.
But Orpik sees in Fleury a guy who’s poised and prepared to rebound following a disasterous postseason last spring.
“I think he’s ready,” Orpik said. “He’s had a good summer, cleared his mind. He’s been working on some new stuff. I think just his whole approach off the ice and attitude has
been a lot different.
“He’s a real care-free guy and he’s a guy who really cares about winning. He has a goofy personality at times so I think sometimes that comes across as him being a little too loose. But he’s one of those guys, as goofy as he is at times, he’s ultra-competitive.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the playoff that he wanted last year. I think he learned from it and he’s been working really hard through (training) camp here. This was obviously a great
start for him.”
What shouldn’t be lost in the aftermath is how well the Penguins played in front of Fleury.
He had to make three spectacular saves to preserve the shutout late.
But prior to that the Penguins played team defense the way they’ll need to play it to support Fleury along the way to the bounce-back season they’ll need from him.
Head coach Dan Bylsma would prefer his team manage the puck better and play more in the offensive end than it did against the Devils.
The Pens didn’t “play defense with the puck, so to speak,” to Bylsma’s liking.
But they did a great many other things the way they’ll need to do them.
“Defensively, I thought we were good throughout the game,” Bylsma said. “I thought the six defensemen
played real solid in the defensive zone, made several good plays.”
In terms of being in the right places at the right times on the ice, “Our team was for the most part good throughout the game,” Bylsma continued. “I loved the way our team played defense. I loved the way our defense did. The penalty kill was big the two times it had to be.
“I’m probably going to estimate a scoring-chance game under 12 (allowed). At the end there were probably three or four that Marc had to make big saves on but we minimized it with how we played defensively and as a group. From that aspect it was solid.”
The Pens’ goal is to hold opponents to less than 12 scoring chances a game.
Fleury will have every opportunity to bounce back if they keep achieving that goal.