It was an October Sunday in Pittsburgh like so many before: a big game, a loud crowd, a meaningful win. What made this Sunday different was that the game took place not at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s six-time champion Steelers, but just a short walk away at PNC Park, which until this year had no reason to stay open for business this late into the baseball season.
In fact, Sunday’s Game 3 of the National League Division Series came on the latest date a game has ever been played in the 13-year-old stadium. The Pirates' tilt with the Cardinals may have lacked the novelty of postseason baseball's return to the Steel City -- the theme of Pittsburgh's wild-card win over the Reds last Tuesday -- but it had even more drama. The resilient Pirates relied upon clutch hitting and solid relief pitching to post a 5-3 victory that pushed them within one win of their first postseason series triumph in 34 years.
Twice the Bucs took a lead in this game and twice St. Louis -- or more accurately, Carlos Beltran -- answered. The Cardinals tied the score at 2-2 in the fifth on the right fielder's two-run single, and again at 3-3 in the top of the eighth after Beltran crushed his 16th career postseason home run.
Pittsburgh, though, responded immediately. Andrew McCutchen, who is bolstering all those "MVP!” chants at PNC by batting .538 in the postseason, with a .667 on-base percentage, led off the bottom of the eighth by lining a double to left field. The center fielder was erased one batter later when St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma wisely threw him out as McCutchen was trying to advance to third on Justin Morneau’s ground ball.
But the Pirates continued to fight. Marlon Byrd drew a one-out walk, moving pinch-runner Josh Harrison to second, and third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- now batting .400 with a .500 OBP in this series -- pulled a single to right that scored Harrison with the go-ahead run. Catcher Russell Martin then followed with a single of his own to give Pittsburgh a 5-3 edge that closer Jason Grilli nailed down in the ninth.
Though the Pirates won 10 of their 19 regular season meetings with the Cardinals this year, St. Louis actually outscored Pittsburgh by two runs. That pattern remains three games into the NLDS, with the Pirates up 2-1 in the series despite each team having scored 13 runs. Both clubs won routs in St. Louis –- the Cards took Game 1 9-1 and the Bucs responded with a 7-1 win in Game 2 –- by knocking out the opposing starter before he could complete five innings, but this game was decided by the bullpens.
And that meant that Pittsburgh -- with its famously self-proclaimed “Shark Tank” relievers, who posted the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League -- had the advantage. Other than Beltran’s home run, which was just the second allowed in 2013 by All-Star righty Mark Melancon, St. Louis never seriously threatened, failing to get a runner past first base against three Pirates relievers.
For the Cardinals, reliever Carlos Martinez put the first three men on in the fateful eighth inning (though McCutchen was erased trying to advance to third). Kevin Siegrist, who had allowed just four of 19 inherited runners to score all season, took over from Martinez with two men on base and this time let them both cross home plate. Add that to the run-scoring sacrifice fly that greeted St. Louis reliever Seth Maness in the sixth, and the inability of the Cardinals’ bullpen to work out of jams was the difference in the game.
Pittsburgh will need its sharks to be every bit as dangerous as they were on Sunday in Monday’s Game 4 because it’s unclear exactly what the Pirates can expect from starting pitcher Charlie Morton. He has faced St. Louis three times this season and the Cardinals have lit him up for 12 runs in 13 2/3 innings (7.90 ERA). With Game 5 scheduled for St. Louis on Wednesday, this might be Pittsburgh’s best chance to finally get that elusive series victory.
In each of the Pirates' last two postseason appearances, the 1991 and ’92 NLCS losses to the Braves, they had a chance to close out the series and advance to the World Series. But Pittsburgh lost Games 6 and 7 at home in ’91, and then famously fell on the road in Game 7 the next year after holding a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning. That, of course, happened so long ago that Alvarez and McCutchen were not yet in grade school, there was no Division Series and PNC Park had not even been built. This is a new Pirates team -- as they proved again with their win on Sunday -- in a new era with a raucous new house. And with one more win, they’ll have a new reason to celebrate.