It is not even August, but the Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals series at PNC Park this week is the biggest Pirates series since the heartbreak of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. That might not say much about the sad, sad state of Pittsburgh baseball the past two decades, but it's true beyond dispute.
So is this:
The stage isn't too big or too bright for these Pirates, at least it wasn't Monday night in the opener of this series. Ten pitches into their half of the first inning, they led, 4-0. With ace starter Francisco Liriano dealing, the game virtually was over. The Pirates went on to win the first of the five-game, four-day series, 9-2, to move within a half-game of the Cardinals, not just for first place in the National League Central Division, but for the best record in baseball.
"We're a confident team," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, sounding not the least bit surprised and almost insulted by the insinuation that this was some sort of upset.
The big crowd of 32,084 had a blast.
The Pirates gave 'em everything they wanted and plenty more.
"There's a passion again," Hurdle said about the mood all over this town over its baseball team.
The Cardinals are used to playing significant baseball. The Pirates, not so much. The Cardinals went to the playoffs in 2012, won the World Series in 2011 and 2006 and played in the World Series in 2004. The Pirates haven't made it to the postseason since ...
You have to be really old to remember.
That 1992 series, which ended so miserably when the Braves' Sid Bream beat a throw home from Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds.
Decided edge, Cardinals.
Maybe, Hurdle grudgingly acknowledged.
But maybe not.
"A lot of things need to be done for the first time," Hurdle said. "There's an opportunity here to embrace."
For one game, anyway, the Pirates wrapped both arms around it. They did it so well that Hurdle was momentarily floored when asked what he liked best about the win. "I just like when we play like that ... but it's awfully hard not to like Frankie on the mound the way he's pitching."
At the risk of offending Hurdle, who saw this coming?
It didn't seem like a fair fight when the lineups were announced. The Cardinals put the best offensive team in the National League on the PNC Park lawn, including three of the league's top six hitters -- Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter. Together, they had accounted for a .326 average, 27 home runs and 183 RBIs. The Pirates sent out Jose Tabata and Alex Presley to the alleged power positions of right and left field. Tabata was in an 0-for-12 slide, Presley just recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis and thrown in the lineup for scuffling Starling Marte. Together, they had accounted for four home runs and 14 RBIs.
Funny game, baseball.
Funny game, indeed.
Three players trumped that potentially huge offensive edge for the Cardinals. They were Liriano, St. Louis starter Jake Westbrook and Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
Liriano had given up two or fewer runs in 11 of his 14 starts coming in so he seemed pretty safe with that early 4-0 lead. He was perfect for 31/3 innings before allowing a hit. He struck out eight, including Craig and Molina with runners on first and second in the fourth. Craig, who started the game hitting .611 (11 for 18) with runners in scoring position in July, struck out three times against Liriano.
"Frankie can answer," Hurdle said. "He continues to pitch well. He continues to be aggressive."
Westbrook has been awful against the Pirates, coming in with a 1-7 record and 4.81 earned run average. That's why it was no surprise when he walked leadoff man Tabata on five pitches, hit Neil Walker with his sixth pitch and gave up a run-scoring single to Andrew McCutchen with his ninth to make it 1-0, Pirates.
Did I mention it was 4-0 after 10 Westbrook pitches?
Depending on your perspective, Westbrook is especially lousy against Alvarez or Alvarez is really good against Westbrook. It doesn't matter, right? Alvarez, starting to settle in just a bit as the Pirates' cleanup hitter, smoked the first pitch he saw into the right-center field seats, making him 13 for 22 (.591) against Westbrook with three home runs and 11 RBIs.
That was just the start of a beautiful night at the ballpark. The fans couldn't get enough. They had waited nearly 21 years for this kind of baseball, even if it was just one game in late July and things could be completely different today when the two teams play a doubleheader. They didn't want to leave even after the Pirates piled on with five runs in the seventh.
It should be noted Presley had a run-scoring single in that big inning. It was the only hit for him and Tabata, although Tabata walked twice and each scored a run.
Amazing game, baseball.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published July 30, 2013 4:00 AM