Worth the wait: Pirates advance to NLDS to take on familiar Cardinals
Two decades of frustration for the Pirates and their long-suffering fans evaporated over the course of 3 1⁄2 hours Tuesday night at PNC Park.
The Pirates hammered the Cincinnati Reds, 6-2, in the National League wild-card game. They advance to face the St. Louis Cardinals at 5 p.m. Thursday in Game 1 of the NL Division Series at Busch Stadium.
“They're a tough team, but we're about to really get it going,” right fielder Marlon Byrd said.
“It's a new season right now,” said closer Jason Grilli, who got the final three outs, then gave catcher Russell Martin a bear hug. “Keep winning, that's what we do.”
It had been 20 years, 11 months and 20 days since the Pirates hosted a playoff game. That was when the Good Ship Lollipop, not a four-story duck, was the wackiest thing afloat on the Allegheny River and nine years before PNC Park opened.
Pittsburgh always has loved its Pirates. It just forgot how much.
Tuesday's game reawakened those memories.
The atmosphere was electric. The overflow crowd of 40,487 — the largest in PNC Park history — honored pitcher A.J. Burnett's call for a “blackout” and came dressed in black T-shirts and jerseys. Fans sang along in loud unison as outfielder Andrew McCutchen's mom, Petrina, belted the national anthem.
“It's fun to play in front of a crowd like that,” Reds shortstop Zack Cozart said. “They were hungry, which they should be. It's the first time the Pirates have been there in I don't know how long. So hats off to the Pirates and good luck to 'em.”
Last weekend the Pirates swept three games from the Reds in Cincinnati and earned home-field advantage for the wild-card game. They are only the fourth pair of teams in major league history to begin a postseason against each other after clashing in the final game of the regular season.
Building a four-game winning streak is tough. Doing it against the same opponent takes outstanding pitching and opportunistic offense. The Pirates got both Tuesday.
Making his third career playoff appearance, starter Francisco Liriano was brilliant and got his first playoff win. The left-hander worked seven innings and allowed one run on four hits. He walked one, struck out five and got 14 of his 21 outs on ground balls.
“When we signed him (over the winter), we wanted somebody who could solidify our rotation,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “Frankie did it beyond our expectations.”
Martin, who hobbled through the final weeks of the season on a sore knee, mashed two solo home runs. He's just the second Pirates player to have a multihomer game in the playoffs. Bob Robertson homered three times in Game 2 of the 1971 NL Championship Series.
“It's definitely a special game, and I'm going to remember it for a long time,” Martin said. “Probably couldn't have written a better script.”
Reds starter Johnny Cueto threw 23 pitches in the second inning, when Martin and Byrd shifted momentum the Pirates' way by homering into the left-field bleachers.
That set off the crowd, which began chanting Cueto's name with every pitch. It seemed to get inside Cueto's head.
As Martin came to bat, Cueto stepped onto the rubber — and dropped the ball. He had to jog off the mound to retrieve it. The crowd laughed and chanted louder.
“You might think I was scared when the ball was dropped, but I was not,” Cueto said. “The ball just dropped.”
The next pitch was a 95 mph fastball, and Martin whacked it 396 feet for another solo homer.
“Two pitches, two home runs, and I lost the game,” Cueto said.
Liriano cruised through the first three innings. But he started the fourth by plunking Shin-Soo Choo on the shoulder. Ryan Ludwick singled.
With two outs, Jay Bruce shot an RBI single to left. Frazier hit a towering shot down the left-field line — high enough, long enough … but foul by a couple of feet. Liriano regrouped and struck out Frazier to end the inning.
Cueto was lifted after serving up Starling Marte's one-out double in the fourth. Walker doubled off lefty reliever Sean Marshall to make it 4-1. Walker later scored.
Martin went deep again in the seventh, marking the first time the Pirates hit three homers in a playoff game at home since Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.