Cardinals' prowess on the mound, at the plate doom Pirates in NLDS clincher

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The circumstances entering the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series Wednesday night didn't produce a lot of natural hope on their own. Trailing the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-1, Pirates fans had to conjure it up for themselves.

That's what brought Travis McCullough, 27, to his feet. He stood near the front of the watch party on Federal Street, wanting to send a message to his team, and to baseball fans across the country. For the entire inning, as another potential rally fizzled out without a run, he waved his Jolly Roger flag.

"I wanted to show them how much we care for them, how proud we are for them," said Mr. McCullough, who lives in Dormont. "It's been an amazing, amazing season."

A franchise-changing one, Mr. McCullough said, despite the Pirates losing two games in a row that would have sent them to the National League Championship Series with a victory.

"We believe now," he said. "I feel the heartbreak, but still, we made it this far. We're still out here. Raise the Jolly Roger no matter what."

Cameron Cahill, 23, and his friend, Steven Carless, 23, were right there with him. They sat in the front row until Pedro Alvarez struck out for the game's final out, sending the Cardinals to the NLCS.

"The losing attitude isn't here anymore," Mr. Cahill said.

Wednesday, the lights of PNC Park beamed into the cool October night, almost beckoning the home team to come back for at least two more games next week against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Believing that was their destiny, hundreds of fans were pulled by a magnet-like force to Federal Street, just east of the park's limestone walls, to watch on a large projection screen that the Pirates provided. It was the least the club could do after its blacked-out fans gave the team their voices and their hearts for three games that produced record attendance.

From the moment the TBS pregame show switched to the live feed of the watch party to the bitter end, the crowd cheered as if the Pirates could actually hear them -- a tradition as much a part of being a Pittsburgher as the love of fireworks.

Justin Craig, 19, of Lawrenceville and Chad Pint, 20, of the North Hills snagged a spot near the back. A part of what was once considered to be a lost generation of Pirates fans, Mr. Craig and Mr. Pint found themselves in the middle of an argument about just how much the team had won over the average Western Pennsylvanian with this playoff run.

"They had a good season," Mr. Pint said, "but if they lose, everybody else is going to stop liking them like they did before."

Mr. Craig, wearing a gray Roberto Clemente jersey, couldn't believe his ears.

"No, absolutely not," Mr. Craig said. "Next year, they're gonna be even better. For a while, they were trading their best players. I'd say for the past six years they've been building a team. I'm happy where they are now. The fans that are here now, I'd say half of them will be there the first game next season."

In front of them, two Pirates employees stood behind a long table wearing blazers. It was their job Wednesday night to give their fans, old and new, information on 2014 season-ticket packages.

For longtime fan John Kocur and his wife Beth, who live close by in the Mexican War Streets, it wouldn't be a tough sell.

"It's been a fantastic season, win or lose," Mr. Kocur said in the first inning. "It's great to see how the fans came back, and Pirate baseball is back after so many years."

The optimism was well-earned during a year in which the Pirates had a winning season, clinched a playoff berth and won a playoff game -- all for the first time in 21 years. With each step, the Pirates bandwagon grew a little more, to the point that they were picking up supporters from all over the nation.

Andrew and Kelly Hughes, moved to Pittsburgh four years ago to start their young family. Mr. Hughes is from North Carolina, Mrs. Hughes from Minnesota, and they took to the Pirates right away for a very simple reason.

"The games are much more accessible and affordable for us," Mrs. Hughes said. "This is the way we connect to Pittsburgh sports without trying to pay crazy amounts for it."

This year, the Pirates became more than a cheap date. Being transplants to the area, they sense a different vibe about the Pirates playoffs compared to the Steelers and Penguins.

"It feels like something you've been waiting for for a long time as opposed to something you're used to," Mr. Hughes said. "There's a level of excitement that's just been brimming for a long time."

And, as for those Steelers, maybe the Pirates did something special for them, too, these last few weeks.

"We could be caring about the Steelers being 0-4 right now," Mr. Carless said. "I couldn't care less about the Steelers."


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J. Brady McCollough : and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published October 9, 2013 8:21 PM


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