Pittsburgh reaps rewards of Pirates' journey
MVP McCutchen led Bucs to winning campaign, postseason for first time since '92
From the day PNC Park first opened in 2001, the beautiful ballpark across the Allegheny River from the Pittsburgh skyline was a metaphor for hope, a sign that better times were to come for a franchise that had faltered so often since the early 1990s.
Sure, it took longer than anyone would have liked, but with "blackout" conditions and ear-piercing support from a revitalized fan base at that very venue, hope became reality in October 2013.
For the first time since 1992, the Pirates were playing baseball in the sport's magical month, making the playoffs and registering the franchise's first winning season after 20 years of frustration. Led by a true Most Valuable Player in center fielder Andrew McCutchen and a team concept directed by National League Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle, the Bucs were the toast of the town, and one of baseball's top stories in 2013.
Finally, hope was rewarded in the Steel City in 2013, and the Pirates made their city proud -- and loud.
The atmosphere at PNC Park down the September stretch, through a raucous Wild Card win over the Reds and into a pair of Division Series thrillers against the Cardinals told the tale: Winning had come home at last to Pittsburgh after being gone so long.
"I don't think it's any secret that the W's add up and they get on the right side of the column, the place is electric," Hurdle said. "I do think [Pirates fans] have a belief now in place that they haven't been able to hold on to. It's not just hope anymore.
"They saw tangible evidence of a team that could show up, play, compete and they were proud of. We need to give them more of that."
The Pirates ran up 94 wins, a 15-game improvement over 2012 -- which had been a second consecutive season of raising hopes and having the season slip away. This time, the Pirates held forth in September, winning six of their last eight games to sew up the top Wild Card berth, earning the first taste of champagne in a Pirates clubhouse since the days of Jim Leyland, Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek.
This time, it was McCutchen -- the team's all-around star -- leading the way, along with power-hitting third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- who tied Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead in homers with 36, the first Pirates hitter in that position since Willie Stargell in 1973. It was left-hander Francisco Liriano making a remarkable comeback to prominence, veteran A.J. Burnett providing savvy and rookie Gerrit Cole bursting onto the scene in June. It was Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon both representing the team at the All-Star Game, and shutting opponents down in the eighth and ninth.
And it was at that All-Star Game at Citi Field that the rest of the baseball world had to take notice of the Pirates, because there were five of them there, the most in franchise history since 1972. McCutchen, Alvarez, Grilli and Melancon were joined by starter Jeff Locke, who had a tremendous first half. All five had helped the team move to 19 games over .500 at the All-Star break, one game behind the Cardinals in an NL Central race that would become a barn burner down to the final week.
"It's great to be able to be a part of it and to be able to see it unfold," McCutchen said while part of the Pirates' All-Star crew. "It's fun, just to see the transition from a few years ago to where we are now."
The fun was just getting started, and this time it lasted all the way into October.
The Pirates finished seven games over .500 the rest of the way, going 14-14 in August and dropping three games at St. Louis in early September. But with a roster bolstered by veteran acquisitions Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, the Bucs had what it took to finish the job this time.
A 1-0 win at Texas on Sept. 9 in which Cole outdueled Yu Darvish got the Pirates on track for the remainder of the final month, sparking a three-game sweep of the Rangers and setting the Pirates on course for the postseason. It was their 82nd win, assuring the Pirates their first winning season since '92, thereby removing a sizeable monkey off their collective back.
But a winning record was not the goal. The Pirates reached their first real goal when they earned their first postseason trip since '92, clinching a spot Sept. 23 with a win at Wrigley Field over the Cubs that was followed with a wild champagne celebration.
Keeping the Cardinals' feet to the fire down the stretch before St. Louis grabbed the NL Central title, the Pirates earned home-field advantage for a Wild Card playoff against the Reds, also NL Central foes. That game, played Oct. 1, became a showcase not only for the team, but for the ballpark and the people who filled the air with decibel-bending din.
From the very outset, the crowd was thunderous and during the game chanted the last name of Reds starter Johnny Cueto at deafening levels. In the end, a 6-2 win meant the Pirates would reach the Division Series, thanks in large part to a crowd that sounded like 20 years of pent-up energy.
"This is the newest, biggest buzz," Hurdle said. "It's still ringing in my ears. When we took the field for the announcements, the opening announcements, they let it rip. The park showed up tonight."
In the Division Series, the Pirates took a 2-1 edge with a victory behind Liriano in Game 3 at PNC Park, putting them one win away from a berth in the NL Championship Series. But a near no-hitter by the Cardinals' Michael Wacha in Game 4 sent the series back to St. Louis, where the Cardinals advanced behind a strong performance from ace Adam Wainwright in Game 5.
Suddenly, the Pirates' loud statement of a season had been silenced.
But it won't be soon forgotten, and it surely is a sign of good things to come on the banks of the Allegheny.
"It ended too soon," said general manager Neal Huntington, "but yes, we earned the right to feel this pain."
Said McCutchen: "We didn't end up where we wanted to end up -- but a lot of teams didn't end up where we did. We've come a long way. We opened the eyes of a lot of people, not just in Pittsburgh but around the country. It's definitely just our beginning."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.