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Kovacevic: Pirates just might have what 'it' takes

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Pirates pinch-runner Josh Harrison scores in the eighth inning against the Cardinals on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at PNC Park.

In the generationally groundbreaking book “Moneyball,” Billy Beane, the chief protagonist and general manager of the Athletics, postulates that the playoffs are all luck.

He actually uses much more colorful language — his Oakland teams tend to stink up their Octobers — but he boils it down to this: One team benefits from luck, the other can't touch it, and the playoff clock expires before the cosmos can restore the rightful balance.

It's kind of a fun theory, if nothing else, and one I've long filtered when watching any playoff in any sport.

But now … man, is it too early to postulate that these Pirates just might have this something special, this mythical momentum?

Do they have that it factor?

Don't misunderstand: It would take a fool not to see the talent they've got, the will, the camaraderie. As I wrote out in St. Louis, these aren't some cute, cuddly overachievers.

At the same time, when you take a step back from the Pirates' 5-3 triumph-of-will victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, when you set aside the delirium of another manic gathering of 40,489 at PNC Park, when you shove off even that thrilling thought of being one W shy of the pennant round … it's hard not to see it taking shape.

Know what it looks like?

It's Russell Martin, owner of one sac fly in two years, facing Seth Maness, who hadn't allowed a sac fly in 2013 and had given up only 22 fly balls, with a 2-2 tie in the sixth.

And Martin hits a sac fly.

It's Clint Hurdle lifting his defensive whiz, Clint Barmes, for a pinch hitter with a one-run lead in the sixth inning, setting up a defensive downgrade at shortstop the rest of the way with Jordy Mercer.

And on St. Louis' very next at-bats, Mercer makes a slick scoop on a Jon Jay shot up the middle.

Little stuff, you know?

And it would only blossom.

Fast-forward to the fateful eighth, when Mark Melancon was tagged for a Carlos Beltran blast that tied the score 3-3, then Andrew McCutchen led off the bottom half with a double only to be unwisely thrown out at third on a grounder to the left side.

For those few minutes, it felt like the old St. Louis dynamic, and if you're a longtime season-ticket holder who was there, you know what I mean: The Cardinals would school their weakling cousins on fundamentals and prevail, as has happened time and again for … oh, a couple decades now.

Mike Matheny observed that play from the manager's stoop in the visiting dugout and saw it — his words — as “a major momentum shift.”

Uh-uh.

Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals' flamethrowing righty, came soft at fastball-feasting Marlon Byrd, opening with six curves. The count was full before Martinez brought the heat, and 100 mph at that.

Byrd fouled it off. Maybe the swing of the game.

“Just happy I got a bat on it,” he'd recall later. “That guy was bringing it.”

Martinez brought another curve, and Byrd walked.

“Tremendous at-bat by Marlon,” Hurdle called it.

Pedro Alvarez was next, and he'd top it. Matheny turned to his best lefty, Kevin Siegrist. Alvarez had a .180 average against lefties, and Siegrist had held opponents to an absurd .118 figure.

Siegrist wanted to work Alvarez hard and away, and he succeeded at both, with 95 mph on the outer half … except that Alvarez somehow reached out and pulled the ball through the right side for the decisive RBI single.

“I wanted a ground ball and got it,” Siegrist would shrug.

“I was able to make good contact on the ball and drive it into right field,” Alvarez would shrug as well.

None of this is new, of course. We've marveled all summer at the Pirates' resiliency. But never had we seen it play out on a stage like this, with higher hopes attached to what it could mean if it keeps playing through October.

“It's probably … you know, we've been down a few times this year, and we've been able to battle back,” Martin offered by way of his own postulation. “When you do that, you start gaining confidence. So sure, definitely, the confidence level is high. And the stakes couldn't be any higher, so we're having fun with it.”

Yeah, that's about it.

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