Even as the Pirates got off to a strong start this season, it was still sometimes hard to see how they were different from years past. What would enable them to march to the franchise's first winning record and postseason appearance in 21 years? Why would this finally be the year that they broke their two-decade-long streak of losing seasons? Why -- unlike the last two years in which they suffered late-summer swoons after rising to first place at midseason -- were they able not only to climb above .500 but also finish strong and secure a playoff berth?
For the answers to those questions, look no further than Pittsburgh's 6-2 victory over the Reds in the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday night.
With the exception of the Pirates' lone superstar, Andrew McCutchen, who reached base in his first four at-bats (walk, infield single, intentional walk, single), the Pittsburgh players who had the greatest impact in this game were those who were new to the team this year. Tops among those newcomers was starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, who didn't make his Pirates debut until May 11, but went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, and was 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at PNC Park.
Starting the first home playoff game in Pittsburgh since 1992, the left-hander was perfect the first time through Cincinnati's order. He didn't allow a base runner or a ball to be hit beyond the infield through three innings, needing just 28 pitches (23 of them strikes) and getting eight swings-and-misses.
By the time the Reds finally broke through against Liriano in the top of the fourth, the Pirates were up 3-0. Their first two runs had come on second-inning homers by outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher Russell Martin, both of whom are, like Lirano, in their first years in Pittsburgh.
Byrd, in fact, has only been with the club for a few weeks, having been acquired from the Mets on Aug. 27. He made an immediate impact after the trade, hitting .318/.357/.486 over the remainder of the season. Martin was a free-agent addition last November who was vital to the team's success in 2013. On Tuesday night, he clubbed his second solo homer in the seventh inning to become just the second player in franchise history to have a multi-homer game in the postseason. The Pirates also got a bases-loading walk and a single from first baseman Justin Morneau, who was acquired in a trade with the Twins on Aug. 31. For good measure, left fielder Starling Marte, who didn't make his major-league debut until late July of last year, and who didn't emerge as an impact player until this season, had two hits and scored a run.
Liriano, Byrd, Martin, Morneau and Marte all represent improvements that Pittsburgh has made to its roster since last season (Marte, 24, the only homegrown member of the bunch, has made the club better by virtue of his own development). In this game, that quartet of hitters went a combined 7-for-17 (.412) with four of the Pirates' five extra-base hits, three of them home runs. Liriano, meanwhile, allowed just one run on four hits in seven innings. He got 17 swings-and-misses -- 13 of them with his devastating slider -- and needed just 90 pitches to complete his evening's work. He allowed Cincinnati to send more than four batters to the plate in just one of his seven frames.
Perhaps the most impressive new addition for Pittsburgh, though, was the electric crowd that turned out for the first postseason game ever at PNC Park. The stadium has a listed capacity of 38,496, but set an attendance record of 40,487 on Tuesday night. Dressed primarily in black, per the request of the Pirates' players, who had called for a "blackout," the crowd was at a fever pitch from the start.
At one particularly memorable point, they even appeared to rattle Reds starter Johnny Cueto with a taunting "Cue-to" chant. Immediately after that chant began, with a 2-1 count on Martin in the second inning, Cueto dropped the baseball on the mound, then gave up a homer on his next pitch. The crowd didn't lose focus all game, chanting Liriano's name when he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh. The Pittsburgh fans could be a factor as the postseason progresses, though the Pirates will not have home-field advantage again this October.
Pittsburgh will now fly to St. Louis, where they will open the Division Series against the Cardinals on Thursday. A.J. Burnett will get the ball for the Pirates in Game 1, while St. Louis will counter with Adam Wainwright. That should represent a far greater challenge for the Bucs. Over the last five days, Cincinnati lost four games in a row to Pittsburgh by a combined score of 22-7. The Cardinals lost the season series to the Pirates 10-9, but they actually scored more runs (87-85), and they also swept a three-games series from Pittsburgh in its last trip to St. Louis in early September. For the team and the fans that experienced such a satisfying evening Tuesday, those concerns can wait another day. For now, the Pirates have checked yet another item off their "first since 1992" list. Winning season? Check. Postseason berth? Check. Postseason home game? Check. Postseason win and advancement? Check. This year's Pirates are, indeed, very different.