In the unlikeliest of fashions, the Pirates pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the precipice of elimination.
The game began with the attention focused on the starting pitching matchup. It devolved into a one-sided showdown between Pedro Alvarez and Kevin Siegrist. Alvarez won, and the Pirates came away with a 5-3 victory Sunday at PNC Park, giving them a 2-1 lead in this National League Division Series.
The Cardinals will send rookie Michael Wacha to the mound today against Charlie Morton in an effort to avoid elimination. After taking a thumping in Game 1 of the series, the Pirates won two in a row and are a win away from the National League Championship Series.
"We're also a group that knows tonight doesn't affect tomorrow," said Josh Harrison, who scored the go-ahead run. "It's a whole other game."
Standing a few steps away from second base in the eighth inning, Harrison had a good feeling. He entered the game as a pinch-runner with the score tied, 3-3. Andrew McCutchen had doubled to start the inning, but ran himself into an out on Justin Morneau's ground ball. Harrison pinch-ran for Morneau, Marlon Byrd worked an eight-pitch walk, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny replaced Carlos Martinez with the left-handed Siegrist to face Alvarez.
Harrison watched as Alvarez swung through a first-pitch fastball and liked what he saw.
"From the time that I saw him swing through that one, you know, he's ready," Harrison said.
Siegrist, a rookie, had allowed eight hits in 68 at-bats against left-handers this season. Alvarez had 24 hits in 133 at-bats, a .180 average, against left-handers. But Alvarez took a ball before swinging at the third pitch, hitting an RBI single to right field.
"To be honest, I didn't even hear the crowd until after I scored," Harrison said.
Russell Martin's RBI single added an insurance run.
Alvarez is hitting .400 in the NLDS and has driven in six runs in the postseason.
"He's a pitcher, good stuff, great stuff," Alvarez said of Siegrist. "Threw me a couple of fastballs out over the plate. I was able to make good contact on the ball and drive it into right field."
McCutchen, who went 2 for 2 with a double and two walks and is hitting .538 in the postseason, said he was not surprised.
"I always kind of joke about first-rounders," said McCutchen, a fellow first-round draft pick. "Pedro being a big first-rounder, these are things that are expected out of you as a first-rounder."
The Pirates held a 3-2 lead until the eighth, when Carlos Beltran homered to right-center field off Mark Melancon and rendered PNC Park momentarily silent. Beltran's 16th career postseason homer moved him past Babe Ruth on the all-time list. He is now one behind Jim Thome.
Melancon allowed one home run in 72 regular-season innings, April 14 against the Cincinnati Reds.
Francisco Liriano allowed two runs in six innings in his start, striking out five. His command came and went after a strong start.
"A lot of pitches in the dirt," Liriano said. "I threw a lot of wild pitches. It was one of those nights where you have to go out there and battle."
Melancon earned the win after giving up the lead and Jason Grilli earned the save.
In three starts against the Pirates this season, each six inning in length, Cardinals starter Joe Kelly allowed a combined two runs. The Pirates equaled that run total Sunday in the first.
Kelly issued a two-out walk to McCutchen. Morneau's grounder deflected off Kelly for an infield single, putting runners on first and second, but Pete Kozma's late throw in an attempt to get Morneau at first went wide and moved both runners into scoring position.
Byrd took advantage with a two-run single, giving the Pirates an early lead. Byrd went 2 for 3 with a double and two RBIs.
"I'm trying to soak it all in and at the same time stay focused," Byrd said. "You look at the crowd and you get lost in the energy and atmosphere."
Jon Jay singled to start the fifth and Liriano walked Kozma. He struck out Kelly trying to bunt, and Matt Carpenter looking at a 3-2 pitch, but Jay and Kozma executed a double steal, moving both runners into scoring position. Replays made it look as if Russell Martin's throw beat Jay to the bag, but the play was close. Beltran singled up the middle to score both and tie the score, 2-2.
McCutchen's leadoff walk in the sixth set the stage for the Pirates to break the tie. With one out, Byrd doubled. Kelly intentionally walked Alvarez to load the bases. He then gave way to Seth Maness and his 68.4 percent ground-ball rate, the second-highest rate for players with at least 60 innings pitched this season.
Maness gave up a long fly ball to Martin, deep enough to score McCutchen and move the Pirates ahead, 3-2.
A PNC Park record crowd of 40,489 witnessed the victory Sunday. The crowd today has a chance to watch the Pirates clinch an NLCS berth. The players said they will treat it the same way they treated Game 2, after a 9-1 loss in Game 1: As Grilli said, they're gonna want it.
"We're loose in here," Grilli said. "I don't feel it's any different than when we lost the game in St. Louis, the way we come back. We play for today."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published October 6, 2013 11:45 PM