Pirates start playoffs, putting years of losing behind them

The streak is finally over. The Pittsburgh Pirates streak of 21 losing and playoff-less seasons was days away from being sadly extended when the Pirates played their wild card play-in game against the Cincinnati Reds last Tuesday.

It has been an interesting season for the Pirates. The team, made up of journeyman veterans, unproven young players, and one star, has faced injuries, slumps, and last-minute trades. But nevertheless, this group of underdogs has turned into the ultimate feel-good story during this postseason.

Tuesday night’s wild card game showed why baseball is a better sport when Pittsburgh has a winning team. The sold-out, blacked-out crowd was deafening and had everyone talking about the state of Pittsburgh fandom. Twenty-one years of built-up energy was unleashed when Pirates fans finally had something to cheer for. The stadium nearly exploded with excitement in the second inning. Late August trade addition Marlon Byrd hit a solo home run to give the Pirates a 1–0 lead. Two batters later, free-agent acquisition Russell Martin was up to bat against Reds ace Johnny Cueto when the crowd took over. Deafening taunts of “Cue-to Cue-to” echoed through the stadium.

Reports have varied about what happened next. Pirates supporters believe that the chants caused Cueto to lose his cool and drop the ball on the ground while walking back to the mound. Reds manager Dusty Baker, who was fired after the loss, claimed that Cueto’s hand just slipped and the crowd was a non-factor. Either way, the result was the same. Martin and Cueto exchanged smiles at the situation; on the next pitch, Martin drilled the ball 405 feet to center field for a home run and turned the crowd loose.

After another Martin home run, the Pirates cruised to a 6–2 victory, allowing them to move on to the National League Division Series against the National League Central-winning St. Louis Cardinals.

The first two games of the series were complete mirror images of each other: Game 1, on Thursday in St. Louis, showcased a battle of strong pitchers with the Pirates’ A.J. Burnett facing off against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. It was shaping up to be a pitcher’s duel until the bottom of the third inning when Burnett lost his command.

The inning started with Burnett walking Wainwright, followed by a series of hits, home runs, walks, and hit batsmen. The inning took a turn for the worse when Burnett issued a walk with the bases loaded, and followed that up by giving up a single that allowed three runs to score after a throwing error by Byrd. Burnett gave up seven runs, while facing eight batters and not getting a single out in the entire inning.

After that point, the Pirates were unable to muster any sort of comeback and accepted the 9–1 beatdown. After the game, many Pirates faithfuls were afraid that the inevitable collapse the Pirates annually suffer had arrived, albeit this time in October instead of in July.

Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole came to the rescue in Game 2, pitching a gem and succeeding where Burnett had failed. Cole went head-to-head with Lance Lynn and outdueled him, pitching six innings of one-hit ball. Cole also provided his own run support with an RBI single in the second inning to start off the Pirates’ run parade. They scored two more runs in both the third and fifth innings, followed by insurance runs in the seventh and eighth innings.

The previously dominant Cardinals offense was held to only four hits, as the Pirates bullpen — known as the Shark Tank — pitched three shutout innings to finish off Cole’s sterling performance. With closer Jason Grilli back from injury, the Pirates have debatably the best setup closer combination in baseball with Mark Melancon being named an All-Star for his great setup work.

The Pirates are now back home for two games with a chance to close the series and advance to the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the winner of the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers series. One can only imagine how loud Pirates fans will get if their team makes it not only to the NLCS but all the way to the World Series.