It wasn’t a perfect game in the 27-up, 27-down sense, but just try telling that to Pittsburgh Pirates fans today.
Their Bucs, beloved once more, delivered a performance to be remembered in Tuesday night’s National League wild card game at PNC Park. Yes, the Cincinnati Reds had a few fleeting moments of success before succumbing 6-2 in front of 40,487 black-clad, flag-waving maniacs, but it’s difficult to describe the Pirates’ first playoff game in 20 years in any other way than perfect.
The scene was set well before the 8:07 p.m. first pitch, as Bucs fans spurred on by two decades of anticipation were chanting and clapping while filling the baseball cathedral on the North Shore fuller than it ever has before. The decibel level climbed as the starting lineups were introduced, featuring lusty boos for the Reds and the loudest cheers any Pirates have ever experienced at PNC Park.
Then, following a rousing national anthem from none other than Andrew McCutchen’s mom Petrina, the real fun started. Francisco Liriano, battling a respiratory infection, dispatched the Reds in businesslike fashion over the first three innings, setting aside any concerns about nerves for the veteran lefty.
Liriano’s early success seemed to further empower the Pirates, led by catcher Russell Martin, like Liriano an offseason free-agent signing by general manager Neal Huntington. Martin homered twice to left field in the game, while postseason newcomer Marlon Byrd launched a dinger in his first October at-bat.
Throw in a Neil Walker fourth-inning RBI double, an around-the-horn double play in the fifth and Reds starter Johnny Cueto’s dropping the ball off the mound after relentless taunting from the bloodthirsty crowd, and there was no shortage of indelible moments that will live on in Pirates fans’ memories for years.
When Jason Grilli induced Cincinnati’s Zack Cozart to ground out to Walker to end the game, it was official: big-time baseball had been reborn in Pittsburgh. The drama of the one-game playoff combined with the franchise’s long-awaited revival effectively served to energize Pirates fans to a level rarely reached before, if ever.
As the champagne dries in PNC Park’s home clubhouse, the reality will make itself evident. After 94 regular-season wins and a cathartic victory for the ages, the challenge begins anew Thursday in St. Louis. The NL Central champion Cardinals will be a worthy opponent in the best-of-five NLDS, as another familiar franchise greets the Pirates in the thoroughly unfamiliar MLB postseason.
But for now, the future can wait. Soak it in, Bucco fanatics, and rest those vocal cords. They’re going to be needed again on Sunday.