Pirates proving they belong in playoffs

Tuesday night was fun. It was more than 40,000 people packing PNC Park for the first time, showering their team with so much love that the Cincinnati Reds never had a chance in that wild-card baseball showdown. It was a nonstop thrill ride, ending with a man so impassioned by the experience of a Pirates victory to advance to the National League Division Series that the natural thing to do was to jump into the Allegheny River from the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Tuesday night was fun, yes. But Sunday night was playoff baseball. It was vintage, high-stakes, hold-your-bladder stuff. It was the tried-and-true St. Louis Cardinals, led by postseason maestro Carlos Beltran, trying to ruin everything. It was 40,000 nervous people sending a prayer into the uncomfortable dark of an unseasonably warm fall evening: that, somehow, Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez had learned how to hit left-handed pitching.

It was Mr. Alvarez answering those unholy requests, roping a single into right field to score Josh Harrison and give the Pirates the lead again in the bottom of the eighth.

How do you go from a cute story to a legitimate contender in October? You win games like Sunday's. You win, 5-3, after allowing the Cardinals to tie the game at 2-2 and then at 3-3. You stare down the bully and you answer him, over and over again, and you walk off the field needing one more win for a trip to the National League Championship Series.

Hey, America, look. The Pittsburgh Pirates are serious about this.

"I believe we're showing that," Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "Actions speak louder than words on that one. All you have to do is watch a ballgame. That'll answer it."

As Mr. McCutchen said this, he was surrounded in front of his locker in the Pirates clubhouse. Reporters from around the country were hoping he could help them figure this out. The Pirates, leading the best-of-five series by 2-1, will play at 3:07 p.m. today with a chance to advance.

"I feel we are somewhat of a Cinderella story for baseball, for all of sports," Mr. McCutchen said. "We're continuing to surprise a lot of people, to show that we're not just happy to be in the postseason, that we're fighting for a World Series."

Mr. McCutchen can sense the bandwagon growing outside of Western Pennsylvania, and he understands the intrigue of this rollicking revival on the river.

"We're the new team," he said. "The Rays, the Oakland A's have been here. I guess you can say we're fresh meat. Everybody wants a piece, wants to see what the Pirates are all about, and it gets me excited."

On Sunday, as he has done before both playoff games at PNC Park, Mr. McCutchen took a moment to soak up what he has helped create. He looked into the stands, into the faces of the crowd, and reminded himself that he's living a dream. All the guy from small-town Fort Meade, Fla., had to do to persuade thousands of total strangers to wear black was send a tweet asking them to do so.

Now it was a Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, and people had traded in their Roethlisberger and Polamalu jerseys for Mr. McCutchen's No. 22 and hometown kid Neil Walker's No. 18.

"Well," Mr. Walker said, "it helped that the Steelers were on a bye week."

It also helped that the Steelers are 0-4, but no reason to go there at a time like this. The Pirates have their city's heart, no matter the circumstances.

"This is painting memories," Mr. McCutchen said, "and this is just one of those things they're going to remember forever just as much as we are. It's definitely not just us. It's all of us."

The Pirates, and Pittsburgh, did not know what to expect when these playoffs began, and that was the beauty of it.

Tuesday's 6-2 win was magical because it was the first time the city had hosted a playoff game since 1992. Then, it was on to St. Louis, where Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett gave up seven early runs in a 9-1 loss Thursday. Rookie pitching sensation Gerrit Cole made sure the Pirates wouldn't come home empty-handed Friday.

In Sunday's game, with ace Francisco Liriano on the mound, the Pirates were clear favorites, especially playing in front of what some national pundits think is one of the best atmospheres they've encountered. But could the Pirates do what good teams do and take what's in front of them?

Mr. Beltran stood in their way, singling in two runs to tie the game in the fifth.

In the eighth, after the Pirates had retaken the lead, 3-2, on a Russell Martin sacrifice fly, Mr. Beltran swatted a home run to right-center field, tying the game again. He now has more postseason home runs, 16, than Babe Ruth.

"He is amazing to watch," Mr. McCutchen said.

So many small moments added up to this simple fact: The Pirates would have to score again to win the game. Sure enough, Mr. McCutchen, who is batting .538 in the postseason, ripped a double down the left-field line.

As he got to second base, he raised his arms, playing to the crowd, and emphatically flashed the "Zoltan" sign. It was an MVP moment, until he was thrown out at third base on the next play after some poor judgment.

The Pirates weren't done, though. Marlon Byrd walked, sending Mr. Harrison to second with one out. It would be up to Mr. Alvarez, who bats below .200 against left-handed pitching and was facing Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist.

Once again in these playoffs, Mr. Alvarez embraced the stage.

"That's what you dream of," he said, "to be able to play in these type of games at this time of year. And to do it here, you know, it's just been a lot of fun."

The stadium was electric again on Sunday, in spurts. This time, chanting the pitcher's name in unison did not tear him apart. There was more quiet, more nerves, as the tenor of the game demanded.

How did these Pirates, with so little to draw from in the past, hold up?

"You just try to take some breaths," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "You try to live in the moment."

Added fellow shortstop Clint Barmes, "Deep breaths, yeah. There are times when things get going a little fast, and you try to take a step back. That's a pretty good feeling when you're playing a game that causes you to do that."

Pirates closer Jason Grilli, who earned the save, said the Pirates have been preparing for these moments all season.

"I feel like I could lift up my Hummer with the adrenaline that's flowing," Mr. Grilli said. "You have to take it in stride and try to use it to your advantage. If you let it take hold of you, it can be too much."

Four games into this postseason, the Pirates have it under control.

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published October 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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