This week’s five-game series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals was billed as the most important series in the 13-year history of PNC Park, and maybe the past two decades of baseball in western Pennsylvania.
The Bucs have risen to the lofty stage, stunningly winning the first four games of the National League Central showdown. The Pirates now lead the division by 2 1/2 games over St. Louis, pending Thursday night’s series finale.
But just as dramatically as the Pirates have embraced the opportunity to just into first place, Pirates fans have responded in kind. Especially in the past two days on the North Shore, the level of emotional engagement from the congregation has reached levels not seen in Pittsburgh in quite some time.
The rising tide of Bucco partisanship reached an apex in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday night. The Pirates hung in admirably after falling behind 2-0 in the first, rallying back against Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and eventually taking a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the eighth on Russell Martin’s two-out single.
Bucs reliever Mark Melancon quickly got the first two outs of the ninth, then worked an 0-2 count against Daniel Descalso. His ensuing curveball for a called strike three set off a roar never before heard at PNC Park (video).
Melancon said he “got goosebumps” upon hearing the cheers cascading down onto the playing surface. Pittsburgh native Neil Walker proclaimed that moment as the loudest ever at the ballpark.
Beyond the postgame decibel level, the attentiveness of the paying customers has separated the energy at PNC Park this week from anything created in the past. The fans are hanging on every pitch, every play, every moment.
That feel for the rise and fall of an important baseball game has seemingly come out of nowhere. I attended a Saturday night game against the Mets just before the all-star break and was disappointed in the sellout crowd’s response for everything but the most obvious of important spots.
In some ways it’s understandable. After 20 years of watching mostly meaningless baseball, a person gets accustomed to detachment and distraction. To their credit, the Pirates’ gameday staff has done a great job over the years making a night at PNC Park entertaining without relying upon the actual game.
However, now is the time for the game to be the thing. Judging by the buzz in the stands and the all the eyes locked on the diamond, it looks like Pittsburgh has a serious fanbase to accompany its serious playoff contender.
In terms of sheer attendance, the Pirates have drawn six straight crowds of 30,000 or more. Go back into late June and they’ve broken that barrier in 12 of their last 15. Their average home crowd of nearly 26,00o is 22nd in MLB, but they’re 16 of 30 in capacity (67.7 percent).
Numbers are great to have, and you can’t have moments like Wednesday’s without most of the seats filled. But where Pirates fans have made progress is in the passion category. It’s looking like a fun final two months of the season at PNC Park – and maybe beyond.