The challenge for the PNC Park crowd today is to be better than it was Tuesday night. Good luck with that. The fans, dressed in black and standing, cheering, yelling and chanting from the pregame introductions to the final out, played a big role in the Pirates' 6-2 win against the Cincinnati Reds in the National League wild-card game. The baseball world noticed. They talked about Pittsburgh in a big, positive way all over the country. No one could remember a more amazing scene at an outdoor ballpark.
The challenge for Pirates starter Francisco Liriano today is to be better than he was Tuesday night. Good luck with that. Liriano pitched his way into a prominent spot in franchise history by stopping the Reds on one run and four hits in seven innings. It was an awesome performance that left the crowd serenading, "Lir-i-an-o!" after he left the game.
I can't wait to see what happens today.
"I can't either," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "They set the bar pretty high."
The team has no doubt Liriano will rise to the occasion against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of a National League Division Series. He always pitches well at PNC Park. He has owned the Cardinals this season.
"We're set up as strong as we could want to be set up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Before the series, there was a sense of relief among the Cardinals that they had to face Liriano just one time. But that feeling turned to apprehension after the Pirates won Game 2 Friday, 7-1,. The Cardinals know they wasted a big opportunity to take control of the series. They know they don't play well at PNC Park; they went 3-7 there this season and hit .227 with no home runs. They also realize if they lose to Liriano today they will be facing elimination in Game 4 Monday with rookie Michael Wacha starting for them. Pirates phenom Gerrit Cole showed what a kid can do on a big stage by winning Game 2 at Busch Stadium, but Wacha is no Cole even though the Pirates went just 2 for 27 against Wacha in two appearances this season. Few young pitchers are as talented and cool as Cole. Wacha also will have to face that Pittsburgh crowd, which should be especially amped if the Pirates are in a close-out situation.
But first things first.
"I think they'll bring it again [today], especially with the Steelers not playing," Walker said of Pirates fans. "They'd still pack it, but they might be checking their phones for scores if the Steelers were playing. But they're not. All the attention will be on us. That's nice for us."
Liriano's slider might intimidate the Cardinals, but the crowd surely won't.
"They're going to be rowdy and they're going to be into it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny acknowledged. "That's something you don't get to experience all the time so we encourage our guys to enjoy it."
The Cardinals have been to the playoffs nine times since 2000 and won the World Series in 2011 and 2006. They will not be intimidated.
Reds starter Johnny Cueto wasn't intimidated Tuesday night. He's a pro, one of the best pitchers in baseball. He had a rough night, but to say the crowd got to him would be short-changing the Pirates hitters who had a marvelous approach against him. Marlon Byrd, Russell Martin and the rest were better than Cueto, simple as that.
But that doesn't mean the crowd didn't have an impact on the game. Walker, who had predicted a "Steeleresque" atmosphere a few days earlier, said it was much better than that. "It was the best atmosphere at a sporting event that I've ever been at or played in."
It felt a lot like a Penguins playoff game.
"There were no lines for food," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Saturday. "I've never been to a sporting event where there weren't lines for food because nobody wanted to leave their seat and miss any action of the game. There were just no lines. Nobody was moving."
Hurdle said the fans provided "a really loud verbal assault" on the Reds.
Clearly, the Pirates drew energy from the crowd. "From the home standpoint, that 10th man mentality really does help," Walker said. "It's huge. It tends to lock you in a little more."
Walker made it clear the Pirates are counting on you again, every bit as much as they are counting on Liriano.
"We hope to duplicate that atmosphere several more times this month."
That means the Pirates have to keep winning.
"That's the plan," Walker said, grinning.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM