September 29, 2014
Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Al Behrman

PITTSBURGH (AP) Clint Hurdle greeted each member of the Pittsburgh Pirates as they walked off the field in Cincinnati on Sunday, telling them he ''liked the fight'' even after their chances of winning the NL Central evaporated in a loss to the Reds.

It was Hurdle's way of saying thanks to mish mashed roster of stars and role players who have produced another unlikely postseason run.

''That's who we are,'' Hurdle said. ''We're all in this together. We're all one-minded. We're ready to go.''

A punchline for a generation, it's back to Buctober once again.

The Pirates host San Francisco on Wednesday night in the NL wild card game. A year ago, Pittsburgh capped a remarkable turnaround season by winning 94 games and beating Cincinnati in the same round before falling to St. Louis in five taut games in the division series.

The victory over Reds was a watershed moment for a franchise that spent two decades in baseball purgatory while setting a North American professional sports record by reeling of 20 straight losing seasons. Andrew McCutchen won the MVP. Hurdle was named NL manager of the year and the Pirates captivated the city for the first time in a generation.

Their run this time around might have been even more impressive. Pittsburgh watched A.J. Burnett sign elsewhere in free agency and nibbled at the open market, the marquee signing - if it can be called that - the decision to take a $5 million flier on reclamation project Edinson Volquez, a former All-Star who washed out in San Diego and Los Angeles in 2013.

The right-hander repaid the Pirates by starting going 13-7 with a 3.09 ERA in a team-high 32 starts. He was even better down the stretch, going 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA since Aug. 1. His renaissance is symbolic of a team that kept finding ways to win despite a restructured lineup that hardly looks like the group Hurdle sent out on opening day six months ago.

Josh Harrison evolved from 25th man to an All-Star who replaced erratic slugger Pedro Alvarez at third base. Rookie rightfielder Gregory Polanco provided a jolt after his call-up in June only to head back to the bench after Travis Snider rediscovered the power stroke that had seemingly disappeared.

Starting pitchers Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton made multiple trips to the disabled list. Slumping closer Jason Grilli was shipped to the Los Angeles Angels, replaced by the stoic Mark Melancon. Vance Worley began the spring in Triple-A only to thrive in the heat of a pennant race, shutting out Milwaukee for eight crisp innings on Sept. 21 to virtually assure Pittsburgh of a second straight playoff berth.

The team that started 12-20 finished 88-74, catching the fading Brewers and taking St. Louis all the way to game 162 before ceding the division title.

It wasn't as emotional as 2013. That doesn't mean it hasn't been any less special, though last fall's success gave them valuable experience they relied on after slogging through April and May.

''When we have somebody go down, we have someone to take their place who's been there,'' McCutchen said. ''In years past we didn't have that. We had guys that could take their place but they were young guys, first-year guys who haven't been here. It's the same nucleus of guys. These guys all know what to expect. They all know what to do and that's why we've been doing what we're doing this year.''

Pittsburgh relied heavily on a pitching staff that overachieved a year ago. The rotation patchwork at times this summer, the Pirates became a better offensive team. They finished second in the NL in on base percentage (.330) led by the electric McCutchen and the relentless Harrison.

Harrison provided a needed shot of adrenaline atop the batting order. He hit .315 to finish a close second to Colorado's Justin Morneau in the NL batting race and thrived wherever he worked defensively, be it right field or second base or third, where he moved permanently as the errors and strikeouts piled up for Alvarez.

Harrison is an unlikely success story on a roster filled with them. Yet he brushes off the idea Pittsburgh's rise to respectability is a combination of a mediocre league in which only six teams finished above .500 and some aberrational years by average players.

''We don't listen to any of that,'' Harrison said. ''In this clubhouse, we know what we have. We always expected to be here.''

The Pirates will be there once again on Wednesday night when they face one of baseball's marquee franchises, one with designs on its third World Series title in five years.

That's fine by Hurdle, who took over one of MLB's toughest jobs in December 2010 and has orchestrated a revival no one saw coming.

''I like our team,'' he said. ''I like the fight. I like the grit. These guys love to play for one another and they love to celebrate each other's successes. So it's going to be an exciting time for us (on Wednesday).''

It always is in Buctober.

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AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report

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