ST. LOUIS — Neil Walker lingered in the dugout, like most of his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates did, after teammate Pedro Alvarez struck out for the last out Wednesday night. Walker watched the St. Louis Cardinals holler, jump around and embrace each other on the Busch Stadium field after clinching a trip to the National League Championship Series at the Pirates' expense. The thing is, Walker hanging around wasn't happenstance. He wanted to see Adam Wainwright scream toward heaven. He wanted to watch the Cardinals celebrate.
Why would Walker do that to himself? It seemed cruel. But he had his reasons.
"That’s about as low as you can go as far as your emotions as a professional athlete," Walker said. "Losing is obviously no fun. But you want to remember that feeling. You want to remember what it’s like getting here and not winning. You also want to celebrate when things go the way you want them to go.
"Yeah, that’ll be us soon."
Walker's words don't ring hollow at all. The Pirates were one victory against the Cards from being one series away from reaching the World Series. It might sound silly to put it that way, but how close did they seem in 2012? Or any season since 1992, the previous time they went to the playoffs. They might have lost Game 5 of the NLDS, but in doing so, they raised the bar for future Pirates teams. And that bar used to be very low.
"‘We’re not the laughing stock of baseball anymore," slugger Andrew McCutchen said, which might not sound like much, but unless you've been there, don't dismiss it.
The odd thing about the division series round of the playoffs is, you don't win anything for winning it. No title, no trophy. You just don't lose. You win not having to feel like Neil Walker and the rest of the Pirates feel. And yet, the Pirates might be a special case. They go home with a lot. They go home with expectations instead of crazy dreams that could never come true.
"The ‘happy to get to the .500 mark as an organization' thing is completely behind us," Walker said. "And then, after that, the ‘making the playoffs’ thing is completely behind us. I think, for a long time, we’re going to be contenders for the National League Central Division. We have a great group here and there’s going to be a lot of great things to look forward to in 2014."
If the Pirates had caught a glimpse of the Cardinals celebrating in their clubhouse, they probably would have noticed something: They didn't get all that raucous. They were happy, relieved, silly and drinky, especially the younger players. But there also was a sense that the Cardinals have been here before. Because, well, they've been here before.
"Obviously, this club here, the St. Louis Cardinals organization, have gotten used to this," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "The sustainability is what separates great organizations.
"We were able to take a huge step forward this year in restoring the pride and the passion of the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization, and re-bonding our city with a ball team. It was evident during the wild card game, and through the playoffs, of the hunger and the passion that our fans have for their local team.
"So as I shared with the men in the locker room, their futures individually and collectively are in good hands. All they've got to do is look at the end of their arms, because that's where their hands are. They've worked their backsides off this year, and I'm proud of each and every one of them."