Published December 21, 2016
Fans in the Steel City can breath easy. Their baseball team is headed to the post-season for the first time in a long, long time.
After a 21-year absence, the Pirates clinched at least a National League wild card Monday night when they beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1 and the Washington Nationals lost to St. Louis.
Now, they can turn their attention toward bigger goals, the kind that seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream through all those losing seasons.
"Even though I didn't lose for the last 20 years, they make you feel like you are. You feel like you lost those 20 years," Andrew McCutchen said. "That's all you hear. You hear it every single day — 'When's it going to change? You think this is the year?' You get sick and tired of hearing that. It's awesome that there won't be any questions anymore. The question is, 'Are we going to be able to go farther?'"
It will be Pittsburgh's first trip to the postseason since Barry Bonds, Jim Leyland and Co. won three straight NL East titles from 1990-92. Bonds then left for San Francisco as a free agent, and the small-budget Pirates piled up 20 consecutive losing records — the longest streak in the four major professional sports.
Starling Marte hit a tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, and the Pirates threw out a runner at the plate for the final out.
The Pirates sprayed each other with bubbly and beer and sparkling cider in the visitors' clubhouse once St. Louis' 4-3 win over the Nationals becamYork Mets 3-2 in 10 innings. The Pirates and Reds, both 90-67, trail St. Louis bye final.
Twenty-one years since we popped Champagne in a Pirates clubhouse — and we're acting like it's been a long time...The hard work, the fun. I'm just proud of each and every man in here, the fans they represent, ownership, general manager, president ... the scouts, players. This has been a group effort for a long time
The Cincinnati Reds also clinched at least a wild-card berth, when they beat the New two games in the NL Central with five to go.
Pittsburgh players sang Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." They chanted "MVP! MVP!" while dousing McCutchen. They took pictures and manager Clint Hurdle had them gather for a group photo in the middle of the cramped visitors' clubhouse.
"The people of Pittsburgh have been waiting a long time," said Neil Walker, who homered.
The Pirates snapped a 1-all tie when Marte sent a drive off Kevin Gregg (2-6) with two outs in the ninth into the left field bleachers.
In a fitting coincidence, they then preserved the victory on the final out in a play at the plate.
McCutchen, the center fielder, picked up Ryan Sweeney's bloop single after right fielder Marlon Byrd failed in trying to scoop up the ball and threw to first baseman Justin Morneau, positioned just in front of the pitcher's mound. Morneau caught the throw on one hop and made the relay to catcher Russell Martin, who applied the tag on Nate Schierholtz trying to score from first base.
Still on his knees, Martin held the ball over his head in jubilation. Then, he was embraced by closer Jason Grilli before heaving the ball toward deep left field as the Pirates celebrated near the mound. Grilli escaped with his 32nd save in 34 chances.
"Twenty-one years since we popped Champagne in a Pirates clubhouse — and we're acting like it's been a long time," Hurdle said. "The hard work, the fun. I'm just proud of each and every man in here, the fans they represent, ownership, general manager, president ... the scouts, players. This has been a group effort for a long time."
The Pirates' last trip to the playoffs ended with Atlanta's Sid Bream sliding home with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NL championship series.
The Cubs tied it in the eighth off Mark Melancon (3-2).
Marte's 12th homer set off loud boos for Gregg (2-6), who was almost released last week after going on a rant to reporters when he thought he had lost the closer's job to Pedro Strop.
Walker homered against Jeff Samardzija in the first to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead, and Charlie Morton pitched three-hit ball over seven scoreless innings before the Cubs tied it against Melancon.
Brian Bogusevic led off the eighth with a single, his second hit, and moved up on a groundout by Darwin Barney. Then, after a wild pitch, he scored the tying run on a single by pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy.
That spoiled a terrific start for Morton, who struck out five and walked one.
Samardzija was almost as good, allowing one run and five hits over six innings. He struck out seven and walked four after going 0-1 with a 7.11 ERA in his previous four starts.
He pitched seven solid innings against Milwaukee last week but got into a disagreement with third base coach David Bell over defensive positioning in the dugout.
Samardzija's only blemish in this one came when Walker drove a 1-1 pitch out to left-center with one out in the first.
With the long ball, Walker matched a career high of 14 set last season. He has four homers in the past five games.
Samardzija settled down after that but got little support as the Cubs lost for the 10th time in 13 games. It was also the second straight day an opponent celebrated at Wrigley Field.
Atlanta clinched the NL East on Sunday, and this time, it was the Pirates' turn to party.
"That's what we need to do," Samardzija said. "I think we're getting there, but we need to get some things ironed out."
The Pirates finally have it figured out. Now, they're playoff-bound.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.