Pittsburgh Pirates fans have been waiting 20 years for a playoff game. They got the closest facsimile thereof on Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park.
Alex Presley’s run-scoring single in the bottom of the 11th inning delivered a 2-1 victory in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals, pushing the Pirates past their National League Central rivals for first place in the division. Presley’s hit, which deflected off the glove of Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist and into left field, scored Russell Martin and ended 3 hours and 50 minutes of tension.
The Pirates (63-42) took a 1-0 lead in the first on Pedro Alvarez’ RBI double; the Cardinals (62-42) tied it in the third on Matt Holliday’s groundout. From there, each team’s pitching staff took over, although there were a combined 19 stranded baserunners in the game. The bottom of the seventh was the last 1-2-3 inning of the contest, keeping a packed ballpark on its collective toes.
Vin Mazzaro threw the final frame for the Pirates, working around a walk to give the home side a chance at the win in the 11th. Martin and Gaby Sanchez drew walks against the wild Siegrist with one out, setting up Presley, who was recently called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Travis Snider.
Presley worked a full count and poked a grounder up the middle that Siegrist inadvertently knocked past shortstop Pete Kozma and into short left field. The Cardinals, who have lost five straight for the first time this season, had no shot at throwing out Martin at the plate.
The starting pitchers dominated the early part of the game, with Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett going seven innings to Lance Lynn’s six for St. Louis. Burnett used his fastball-curve combination to ring up nine strikeouts and limit the potent Cardinals hitters to three hits. Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon, Bryan Morris and Mazzaro chipped in a scoreless inning apiece.
Much like Monday night’s game, Tuesday afternoon got off to a rousing start for the 30,000-plus in attendance, as the Cardinals threatened against Burnett in the top of the first. St. Louis put runners on first and second with one out, but Andrew McCutchen turned a sinking Carlos Beltran liner into a sliding catch – and a double play when Holliday couldn’t get back to first base in time.
McCutchen kept the energy going in the bottom half when, with two outs, he smashed a double off the left-field wall against Lynn. Alvarez followed with a two-bagger of his own to right field, driving in the game’s first run. Lynn settled from there, eventually fanning seven Pirates while allowing just one hit after the first.
The Cardinals struck for the tying run in the third. Kozma plugged the left-center field gap with a leadoff double, then advanced to third when Lynn’s bunt back to the mound eluded Burnett. After a Jon Jay strikeout, Holliday’s soft grounder to third pushed Kozma home. Burnett escaped further damage when Beltran scorched a shot directly into first baseman Garrett Jones’ glove.
Controversy arose in the top of the sixth, when Jay whiffed on an inside pitch that hit him in the foot and kicked to the backstop. With catcher Martin arguing that Jay should’ve been immediately called out, the St. Louis leadoff man sprinted all the way to second base. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Burnett spoke their minds to home plate umpire Eric Cooper, but the erroneous call stood.
But Burnett calmed himself after the ruckus and held St. Louis off the board. He blew a fastball past Holliday for a swinging strikeout, then Beltran flew out to left-center and Slippery Rock native Matt Adams grounded out to Burnett, triggering a loud ovation from the emotional crowd.
Burnett, who didn’t allow a hit over the final 18 batters he faced, finished his 113-pitch outing by fanning pinch-hitter Allen Craig to end the seventh and strand another runner. The 36-year-old righthander pumped his fist upon leaving the mound, getting another cheer.
Rookie lefty Wilson took over in the top of the eighth, tossing several fastballs in the high 90s on his way to a scoreless inning. Holliday singled to right with two outs, but Wilson touched 100 mph in his subsequent battle with Beltran, who flied out to the rangy Starling Marte in left-center.
The Pirates generated an offensive opportunity in the bottom of the eighth when Josh Harrison started the frame with a pinch-hit single against Cardinals righty Seth Maness. Marte bunted Harrison to second base, but Neil Walker hit a long fly to center that Jay made a lunging catch on. After an intentional walk to McCutchen, veteran lefty Randy Choate relieved and induced Alvarez into an inning-ending bounce out.
The top of the ninth was a bit dicey for Pittsburgh, with Jones’ throwing error on a potential double play pushing Tony Cruz to third base with two outs. However, Melancon dodged the trouble by getting Kozma to pop up on the infield.
A similar screw-up by St. Louis nearly handed the Pirates a walkoff win in the bottom of the frame. Third baseman Daniel Descalso threw wide of first on Presley’s two-out infield single, advancing Presley to second and giving Clint Barmes a chance to end the game. Cardinals righty Trevor Rosenthal left a pitch up in the zone to Barmes, but the Bucco shortstop lined it into the glove of Jay in center.
The top of the 10th brought the biggest missed opportunity of the afternoon. Morris walked Shane Robinson to start the inning, then watched him sprint to third an out later on Jay’s ground ball single to right. Holliday was up next, and the burly slugger ripped a one-hopper to shortstop that Barmes snagged and turned into a run-saving 6-4-3 double play.
The Pirates have won the first two games of this much-hyped five-game set. Game 2 is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m., with Brandon Cumpton getting his fourth MLB start for Pittsburgh. He was set to oppose fellow rookie Tyler Lyons.