When the ball landed in the glove of St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter, there was quick work to be done in the Pirates clubhouse. With so little time to operate, team employees had to be efficient.
The tarp came down and was stashed away. That was the most important thing. But as the players returned to their lockers, beaten and weary after a 2-1 loss in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, all they had to do was glance toward the ceiling to be reminded of what could have been.
About 50 black strips of tape hung from the top of gold walls, covering the entire oval-shaped room. They were placed just below a rim of framed jerseys -- featuring names like Clemente, Stargell and Mazeroski -- and five World Series championship pennants. The short distance between the leftover tape and those historic markers spelled out a clear message for anyone who cared to look: Greatness can happen here, but it sure doesn't come easy.
Nobody understood that better than Andrew McCutchen late Monday afternoon. He walked into the clubhouse and went immediately to the team's video room. He wanted to see that last at-bat, so he had it queued up. Certainly, watching it now would be far different than living it.
In the quiet of the small room, he could not hear the chants of "MVP" raining down on him from the crowd of 40,493, a PNC Park record. He could not feel the heat of Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal's fastball. He could not see teammate Neil Walker at first base after earning a walk, a gift that the Pirates surely needed on this day to bring Mr. McCutchen to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
One swing from No. 22's bat could tie or win the game, a tantalizing proposition that grew more likely with each pitch from Mr. Rosenthal. The count moved to 3-0, and Mr. McCutchen showed great restraint by taking a strike.
"Because I knew he still had to come to me," Mr. McCutchen said.
At 3-1, he liked his chances of being able to rifle a ball to right-center field. The pitch came to the outside, and he swung, uncorking those wrists through the hitting zone. But the wood simply did not touch enough of the ball.
There would be no champagne popping in Pittsburgh -- only a pop-out to shallow right field and a looming trip to St. Louis for a deciding Game 5 on Wednesday.
Viewing the sequence again, Mr. McCutchen saw how close his swing was to being immortalized in Pittsburgh lore.
"It looked like I was right on it," he said. "It just kind of cut a little bit and went off the end of the bat. I wish it would have gotten a little more of the barrel. It would have definitely been a great story."
For the blacked-out fans in PNC Park, for all of Western Pennsylvania, it would have been the greatest story: After 20 straight years of losing, these Pittsburgh Pirates advancing to the National League Championship Series, winning their first postseason series since 1979.
They will have to wait at least two more days, mostly thanks to the surgical precision of a 22-year-old pitcher from Texarkana, Texas, named Michael Wacha. Drafted 19th overall in the 2012 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft out of Texas A&M, Mr. Wacha surged to the big leagues in less than one year.
On Monday, if the back of his jersey didn't plainly identify him, you could have assumed he was Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, whom the Pirates will have to face Wednesday.
Mr. Wacha, making his first postseason appearance, couldn't have been more unfazed. It possibly helped that WAH-KAH was not as easy for Pirates fans to chant as their past opposing pitcher victims, but it's more likely that Mr. Wacha is just the type of guy who could pitch in a monsoon and fail to notice.
In his last start Sept. 24, against the Washington Nationals, he took a no-hitter into the last out before giving up a single. By Monday, he had forgotten that heart-breaking single and continued terrorizing hitters.
Through five innings, Mr. Wacha was perfect. He walked Russell Martin to begin the sixth but settled down and arrived at the eighth inning with a no-hitter intact. He struck out Marlon Byrd for the third time and then zeroed in on Pedro Alvarez. With the Pirates trailing 2-0, there wasn't much hope left in PNC Park.
Mr. Alvarez changed all of that with one mighty cut. The no-hitter was gone, the lead cut in half. Chants of WAH-KAH shook the stadium, and the kid's first pitch to Mr. Martin bounced before it reached home plate. Mr. Martin walked, and that was it for Mr. Wacha. Finally.
Josh Harrison pinch ran for Mr. Martin, and manager Clint Hurdle decided to put on a hit-and-run with Jose Tabata at the plate. Mr. Tabata whiffed on the pitch from Carlos Martinez, and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina easily threw out Mr. Harrison at second.
"You live and die with those chances," Mr. Harrison said.
Of course, the Pirates aren't dead yet. Far from it. There is at least one more game to be played, and the focus in the clubhouse changed immediately from the disappointment of Monday to the promise of Wednesday.
On the flat-screen TVs sprinkled throughout the room, today's schedule (4 p.m. flight to St. Louis) was featured along with the team's travel dress code (dress slacks, collared shirt, sport coat, ties optional).
With the clubhouse close to empty, and, after looking at his phone for a few minutes, Mr. McCutchen walked through the tunnel back to the field. On his way to the right-field valet parking area, he passed a TV reporter running through his script for the nightly news.
"3-2-1," the man said. "The Pirates are going to put a rookie of their own on the hill, Gerrit Cole, and St. Louis will throw Adam Wainwright out there. In Game 5, one of these two division rivals will see their 2013 season come to an end this Wednesday at Busch Stadium."
As Mr. McCutchen slipped away from sight and found his car, a happy family was waiting for their son and brother outside the Cardinals clubhouse.
Mr. Wacha's father, mother and sister had made the trip to Pittsburgh. When he emerged, wearing a full suit with the requisite red tie, they hugged and posed for a picture.
"See you in St. Louis," said the man who snapped the photo.
"See you in St. Louis," the smiling family said.neigh_city - pirates
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM