It's really happening: The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to the playoffs.
For the first time since Jim Leyland's Barry Bonds/Andy Van Slyke-era squad found heartbreak at the 1992 NLCS, the Bucs have clinched life beyond the regular season. With less than a week to go on the schedule, the Pirates are tied with the Cincinnati Reds and trail the first-place St. Louis Cardinals by two games in the NL Central, so chances are it won't be anything greater than a wild-card berth but — are you kidding? — the city of Pittsburgh will take it.
So will MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, an instrumental part of the Pirates rise from the bottom.
McCutchen can appreciate #Pirates struggles: "I was a part of it. It was all we heard, every day. You get sick and tired of hearing it."
— Rob Biertempfel (@BiertempfelTrib) September 24, 2013
Two dominoes had to fall Monday night for it to happen. First, the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1 at Wrigley Field for their 90th victory, putting them away in the bottom of the ninth on a frenzied and kooky relay play at the plate. Starling Marte had put the Cubs ahead with a solo homer against Kevin Gregg in the top of the ninth.
Second, the Pirates had to watch TVs in their tiny Wrigley clubhouse showing the end of the Washington Nationals game. Once the Cardinals put them away 4-3, the Pirates (and Reds, who also won) were in the playoffs.
It was appropriate that the Pirates made a big defensive play to win. Defense has been their calling card all season, and the relay among McCutchen, first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Russell Martin was a beaut. No strangers to losing, the Cubs lent a hand, too, by getting too adventurous on the bases.
With a runner at first and two outs, Ryan Sweeney dropped a humpback liner into the gap that outfielder Marlon Byrd bobbled. McCutchen picked up the ball and fired it into the infield, where Morneau was in good cutoff position. Nate Schierholtz hesitated too many times coming around third, including once right before sliding. Morneau's relay was in plenty of time, and Martin absorbed the impact and held on to the ball. The playoffs were only a few minutes away. Jay Bell remembers those.
Spent coupla minutes with Jay Bell. He had a beer in hand and a catch in his voice: "This is how I remember it. This is long time coming." — Rob Biertempfel (@BiertempfelTrib) September 24, 2013
Even if those experiences didn't end well, they're a million times preferable to what the Bucs have endured ever since.