Ron Cook: Wonderful Pirates season finally hits new level


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CHICAGO -- Of all the things I've reported over the years, this might have the deepest personal significance:

I have lived long enough to see the Pirates get back to the playoffs.

I never thought it possible.

Good thing I'm not running the club.

"I envisioned this," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle insisted. "I didn't know when it would happen, but I envisioned this."

I didn't see it coming.

Not one time in the past 21 years.

I'm the guy who said and wrote dozens of times that the Pirates never would be a winner with Bob Nutting as the owner.

In this case, at least, it's nice to be wrong.

It was hard not to feel good for Hurdle and the Pirates, who took their wonderful season to a new level Monday night. Their 2-1 win against the Chicago Cubs behind the superb pitching of Charlie Morton and home runs by Neil Walker in the first inning and Starling Marte in the ninth delivered half of the playoff goods. The other half came about 15 minutes later when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals.

"We're in the playoffs. We've got a shot now. We can't ask for anything more," Walker said.

When that playoff spot finally was secured, the Pirates celebrated not like millionaires, but like little boys. They piled on each other in their cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse, dousing anyone in sight with champagne, that nectar of the baseball gods.

"There is nothing like the taste of champagne at this time of year," Walker said, grinning.

Good for him.

Good for the Pirates.

Good for their long-suffering fans, many of whom probably hoisted a glass or two themselves. They no longer have to be embarrassed to put on their Pirates gear.

"It's not Oliver. It's not Stargell," Hurdle said of what the truly hip Pittsburgh ball fans are wearing these days. "It's Walker. It's McCutchen. It's Grilli. It's all of those guys who are out there. It's nuts. It's fun."

This latest win -- No. 90 -- was the best.

OK, the best so far.

"We're not done. We're not going to shut it down," Hurdle said. "The bar hasn't been lowered. We still want to win the division."

Morton was terrific, allowing just three hits and a walk in seven shutout innings. Walker's home run was his fourth in the past five games. Seems appropriate that the Pittsburgh Kid played such a big role in the clincher, doesn't it? Marte's home run bailed out teammate Mark Melancon, who gave up Morton's 1-0 lead in the eighth inning. It was the third game in a row that the struggling Melancon has blown a lead.

But that's a concern for another day.

"This brings a lot of joy to a lot of people," Hurdle said. "This group is gritty. This group shows up to play. To do it with these guys under these circumstances ...

"It's like watching your kids grow up."

This win was so much better than that precious 82nd win Sept. 9 against the Texas Rangers. I understand the significance of that one because the Pirates hadn't had a winning season since 1992, but the only thing 82 wins assured was mediocrity. This was different. Only five National League teams are going to the playoffs. The Pirates are one.

Is that cool or what?

It pushes the many baseball horrors of the past two-plus decades a little further in the past. I still can remember Batman, of all people, being invited to throw out the first pitch for the 2006 opener and ripping ownership for not spending money. That could only happen to the Pirates, right?

Well, I'm guessing Michael Keaton loves everything about this Pirates team.

What isn't there to love?

A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke opened the season as the starting rotation. Only Burnett still is standing and functional. And the Pirates are going to play October baseball and still might win the National League Central Division? Unreal.

The bullpen was the best in the game for much of the season. Not every team could afford to lose its All-Star closer, but the Pirates kept rolling without Jason Grilli. Melancon was magnificent. It's implausible to see him scuffling like this.

Russell Martin was a godsend for not just the pitchers, but the team. What a professional. It only seemed right that he got the final putout Monday night in a close play at the plate.

Andrew McCutchen established himself as the best player in the National League. If he doesn't win the MVP award, it will be a crying shame.

We love to beat up Pedro Alvarez because of his 183 strikeouts and 27 errors. But how about those 34 home runs and 94 RBIs? The Pirates needed all of his production to overcome black holes for much of the season at first base, second base and right field.

We used to beat up general manager Neal Huntington but not so much now. I remember thinking, when he took the job in 2007, that he would be a hero in town if he built a winner. Well? He did and he is.

So is the guy with the vision, Hurdle. He was the right man at the right time for a Pirates franchise that was tired of being ridiculed, tired of being beaten down. Hurdle wouldn't stand for it. He wouldn't allow his players to sink back into their misery. Every day was a new day, a new opportunity. "Shower off" the losses, Hurdle preached. "Show up tomorrow ready to play."

And so the Pirates did.

There were so many improbable wins. Rookie Gerrit Cole outpitched Japanese sensation Yu Darvish in a 1-0 victory in Texas Sept. 9, the Pirates' most important win of the season, not because it was No. 82 but because it came after an ugly three-game sweep in St. Louis. Walker's 11th-inning home run won a 1-0 game in Detroit and Martin's 11th-inning walkoff single beat Detroit again, 1-0, two nights later. Clint Barmes hit a home run to beat San Francisco. Josh Harrison hit one to beat Miami. The Pirates scored three runs in the ninth and four more in the 10th to beat the Los Angeles Angels, 10-9. And who will ever forget Jimmy Paredes? He's the Houston Astros right fielder who dropped the easy fly ball to give the Pirates a win.

That was a gift, sure.

The Pirates earned the other 89 wins.

Here's the really cool thing:

They are not done yet.

Hurdle predicted 95 wins before the season. A lot of us laughed. The Pirates will get there if they win their final five games. But even if they don't, who is going to complain? They are going to the playoffs.

Let that soak in for a minute.

Hurdle was right.

It's nuts.

And it's so much fun.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.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 September 24, 2013 4:45 AM


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