Sept. 23, 2013
Pittsburgh 2, Chicago 1
Turning Point in the game: Starling Marte homers in the top of the ninth to put the Pirates up 2-1; then, in the bottom of the ninth, Jason Grilli earns save No. 32 when Andrew McCutchen picked up Ryan Sweeney's single 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.
The Pittsburgh Pirates' 21-year hiatus from the playoffs ended Sept. 23 just as it began: with a play at home plate.
Russell Martin's tag on a play at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth marked win No. 90 for the Pirates, a 2-1 thriller over the Chicago Cubs, and also clinched the team's first postseason berth since 1992. That season ended when Sid Bream beat out a throw home from Barry Bonds in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the National League Championship Series to claim the pennant for the Atlanta Braves.
"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 marks Pittsburgh's first trip to the postseason since Barry Bonds, Jim Leyland and company won three straight NL East titles from 1990-92.
Starling Marte hit a tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, and Jason Grilli closed it out for save No. 32.
The Pirates sprayed each other with bubbly and beer and sparkling cider in the visitors clubhouse once St. Louis 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals became final.
The Cincinnati Reds also clinched at least a wild-card berth, when they beat the New York Mets 3-2 in 10 innings.
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 in the first to give the Bucs the early lead.
The Pirates snapped a 1-all tie when Marte sent a drive off Kevin Gregg 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 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 Cubs tied it in the eighth off Mark Melancon.
Walker homered off 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 Sept. 22, 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.