The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

January 5, 2014

Pirates hoping for more magic in 2014

Natalie & Siri Pinchot

- — Magical.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2013 season was magical. There was no second-half collapse, no frustrated fan-base screaming for management's heads, no more long playoff drought, and no more losing.

Sure, they drew criticism in spring training, especially when 3rd-year manager Clint Hurdle professed his belief that his club could win 95 games in the coming season. Skeptics said they were too young and inexperienced. An unformidable lineup. Too many holes. Too many backup-caliber players in regular roles.

Did the Pirates listen to all this, much less actually believe it? Of course not. They, instead, prepared to play out the season to the best of their abilities. Which didn’t initially seem to be very good.

After losing 2 out of 3 to the Chicago Cubs in their opening series and then being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Bucs flew to Phoenix for 3 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks toting a 1-5 record already and Pirate Nation saying “Oh, no, not again!” Their team calmly ignored the noise and then took 2 out of 3 from the D-Backs in most interesting fashion. They played as a good and resilient team might. Despite getting drubbed 10-2 in the finale, something had changed. They returned home to the Steel City and swept 3 from the Cincinnati Reds.

A trend had begun.

Summer brought what Pirates fans had been dreaming of for 20 years. It brought times where their team had the best record in baseball. On June 29 the Bucs were the first team in the majors to 50 wins. That victory came during their 9-game win streak from June 20 to July 1. Sellouts became a nightly occasion at PNC Park. Hordes of Jolly Rogers in the stands made the place look like a European soccer match every night. The Pirates were in the midst of a 3-team battle in the NL Central Division with the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals, with the clubs routinely trading places in the standings. Pitching prevailed for the slightly offense-challenged Bucs, whose rotation dominated, led by offseason signing Francisco Liriano, who became staff ace, and was backed up by a bullpen nicknamed the “Shark Tank” for its tenacity and ability to shut down an opponent.

Closer Jason Grilli summed up the moniker: “Because when we smell blood, we pounce.” Mid-July brought the All-Star Game and Grilli, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, 3rd baseman Pedro Alvarez, setup man Mark Melancon, and starter Jeff Locke all traveled to Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, as members of the National League team, the first 5 Pirates to do so since Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, and Willie Stargell in 1972. Alvarez, Grilli and McCutchen played in the game, then they all rejoined their teammates in Cincinnati a day later, not bothered by the fact that legions of fans were holding their breath, thinking, “Now we find out if they’re the real deal!”

But the Bucs knew they were, and set about proving it. They might not have played as well in the second half as the first, but they kept very much in it, staying neck-and-neck with the Cardinals and the Reds in the Central Division. On Sept. 3, they clinched a .500 season with a win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Bucs remained focused on beating the Brewers again the next day, but in Pittsburgh there was jubilation. The Pirates were losers no more.

They waited longer to guarantee a winning season, being swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in their next series. They then proceeded to Arlington for 3 games with the Texas Rangers in a what some called a possible World Series preview. In game one, rookie righthander Gerrit Cole pitched brilliantly for 7 innings, Alvarez homered and the Bucs prevailed, 1-0. Now they were officially winners.

September wasn't a perfect month, but the Pirates continued to fight back and win games any way they could. And on Sept. 23, against the Cubs in the Windy City, they pulled of a thrilling victory that ended with a play at the plate when Ryan Sweeney’s single into right field got snuck past Marlon Byrd. McCutchen was right behind him and picked up the ball, hurling it towards the infield. First baseman Justin Morneau made the catch and relayed to catcher Russell Martin, who tagged out Nate Schierholtz. The Pirates spilled out of the dugout and celebrated as if they had walked off, and a short while later the win combined with the Washington Nationals’ loss to the Cardinals meant the Pirates were headed to the playoffs   for   the first time since 1993. The Bucs then proceeded to drench the Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse in the process of soaking each other to the bone in jubilant celebration. Back home in Pittsburgh their fans were just as ecstatic.

The Bucs lost their chance for the division title with one too many losses combined with Cards’ wins, but they did pick up a wild-card spot. They just didn’t know which one. Coming into their regular season-ending series with the Reds, the Bucs had to win 2 of the 3 games to secure the first spot and host the wild-card game at PNC Park. In game one, Marlon Byrd hit a two-run single, Alvarez a 2-run homer that bounced off the batter’s eye in center field, A.J. Burnett pitched 8 solid innings and the Pirates came away with a 4-1 victory, leaving them with one more win needed. In game two, they sealed it with a bang, hitting 6 home runs, a season high, one of which was rookie Andrew Lambo’s first in the majors, in an 8-3 victory. Game three seemed almost completely meaningless, but the Bucs won it anyway, 4-2, on the strength of a good start from rookie Brandon Cumpton and Jordy Mercer’s inside-the-park homer. Then it was off to Pittsburgh to prepare for the biggest game in PNC Park history.

The night of Oct. 1, 2013, is a memory that will live forever in the hearts of every Pirates’ fan lucky enough to listen to the game on the radio, watch it on TV or, as the envy of all who didn’t, watch it from the highly overcrowded stands at PNC Park. Many stood on the Clemente Bridge outside the stadium.

The place was buzzing with electricity long before Liriano took the mound, but it fairly exploded when he did and calmly set down the Reds in order in the top of the first. Johnny Cueto, though not looking as sharp as Liriano, set down the Bucs 1-2-3 in the bottom half.

Liriano responded by repeating his performance in the 2nd inning, and in the bottom half the Pirates broke through. Leading off, Byrd sent one out to left field to give the Bucs a 1-0 lead and send Pirate Nation into ecstasy. After Alvarez lined out, Martin stepped to the plate. The raucous fans, who had been loud all game, began chanting “Cue-to, Cue-to, Cue-to,” which they had apparently coined as their battle cry, with renewed enthusiasm during Martin’s at-bat, so loudly that almost nothing else could be heard in the stadium. The Reds righthander, already looking rattled as he stood on the mound, dropped the baseball. The fans exploded in triumph. Cueto, nevertheless, wound up and fired his next pitch. Martin drove it out to center to give the Bucs a 2-0 lead, and a moment was etched in Pirates’ history.

Combining that with Liriano’s gem, the Pirates were too much for the Reds on this surprisingly warm October night by the river. They cruised to a 6-2 victory in the first postseason game at PNC Park, and the team’s first in over a decade. The city of Pittsburgh went wild with delirium, and it was off to the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, who had swept Pittsburgh by crushing scores in a 3-game series in early September, the last time the two clubs has met.

 After St. Louis won the first game, 9-1, it looked to some as though the more postseason experienced-Cards would run away with the series. However, on the strength of Cole’s arm and Alvarez’s power, the Pirates won game two, 7-1, and it was back to Pittsburgh. Game 3 was won of Alvarez’s single in the 8th, and Pirate Nation was feeling fine. The Bucs had 2 games to win one and go to National League Division Series.However, it was not meant to be. The Bucs lost the next game, 2-1, even though they played well, and the series went back to St. Louis for a winner-take-all game five. Which, as all their fans already know, they lost, 6-1.

After the dreary desolation of the final night that unfittingly capped the amazing season the Pirates staged, the crushed fan-base woke up the next morning and realized they should be profusely thanking their team for what it did for the city.

So they did. But still, they want more. So do the players.

Said reliever Jared Hughes on his goals for next year, “World Series. Victory. That’s what I’m talking about.”

Hughes, along with reliever Bryan Morris, newly acquired outfielder Jaff Decker, 1st base coach Jeff Banister, and broadcaster Steve Blass were out on the Pirates’ annual — but newly repurposed — Winter Care-a-Van, doing an anti-bullying art project at the Butler Institute of America Art, Youngstown, with kids from Campbell schools. They stressed their desire to do it all again. And they know they came up short.

“I hope next year goes as good, and hopefully better,” Morris said, “because ... we didn’t quite reach the goal that we wanted to reach by winning the World Series, but I definitely think our team is good enough to win the World Series, so ... That’s where we’re going.”

The fan-base with renewed belief in their team believes that. The team believes it even more. They believe in themselves, and, more importantly, they believe in each other.

Said Morris on the team’s chemistry, which carried them throughout the season, “It’s not very common for a group of men to be that close. But ... we were.”

That closeness, the immense strides the team made in 2013, the offseason improvements made by General Manager Neal Huntington and a renewed belief surrounding the entire Pittsburgh Pirates organization has everyone eagerly anticipating the coming season, so much that some of us are marking off the days until spring training in Bradenton, Fla., which begins in February.

With NL  manager of the year Hurdle at the helm and the wind finally in the Bucs’ favor, we can’t wait to see where they sail the ol’ ship next.

Natalie and Siri Pinchot, 17, live in Masury with their dad, Herald Staff Writer Joe Pinchot, their mom, Judi Swogger, and brothers Uriah, 7, and Malachi, 5.