The Pirates won an exhausting six-hour game in the 19th inning on Sunday, 6-3, hopefully ending the curse of Jerry Meals, whose blown call at home plate in the 19th inning in Atlanta last year marked a symbolic end to the 2011 season.
Before I begin, a note: Watching all of a 19-inning game, as I did today, will drive you bonkers. Feel free to fact-check me here. I'm having a hard time doing it, because it feels like some of what happened today took place a lifetime ago. The Pirates got dominated by Jaime Garcia today? Or, wait, wasn't that in late June or something?
No. It was today. From the beginning, it looked like the Pirates weren't going to do much against Garcia, whose sinker fooled the Bucs from the first inning on. Garcia, making his return after two months on the DL, set a career high with 10 strikeouts over eight innings. (It surprised me to see the Cardinals let Garcia pitch the eighth and rack up 107 pitches in his first start back, but hey, it worked.)
As good as Garcia was, though, Jeff Karstens matched him. It was a very Karstens-type start, in that it never felt like he was the story, but most of the time you noticed him, good things were happening. Karstens went seven innings and struck out four, allowing just two hits. (Incidentally, Karstens also started the Jerry Meals game.)
Unfortunately, both those hits came in the same inning. The Cards took a 2-0 lead in the fourth, when Allen Craig led off with a single and Matt Holliday walked. Carlos Beltran sent a double to right, and both runners scored.
It looked like it might be over at that point, with Garcia racking up strikeouts. But the Bucs got some good fortune in the sixth. Clint Barmes led off with an infield single. Karstens attempted to sacrifice, but Garcia made an error on the play, and both runners were safe. The newly-recalled Jose Tabata moved both runners with a bunt, and Josh Harrison brought Barmes home with a sacrifice fly. Then Andrew McCutchen beat out an infield single to score Karstens and knot the game at two.
Fast forward to the bottom of the ninth. Jason Grilli had pitched the eighth, and the game was still tied. Craig, Matt Holliday and Beltran were due up. And Clint Hurdle turned to ... Kevin Correia? Seriously, what? Joel Hanrahan (who's having a frustrating season, in my opinion, but who's pitched well since the last time I complained about it and who'd still be a better pitcher than Correia even with his right arm tied behind his back) was available, and it was a tie game in the ninth, but you know, it wasn't a save situation. It was a terrible decision, except that, this time, it worked. And then it worked in the 10th, too. Of course, I think you should use Hanrahan there, not only because you want to make sure Hanrahan gets into the game, but because, if the game does end up going 17 or 18 innings, you can use Correia for five or so of those. But in the end, it was mostly water under the bridge.
And then not much happened for a couple hours. That's the thing about these incredibly long games. They're really interesting if you're reading a box score (Michael McKenry went 0-for-8, LOL!!!). They're not so interesting if you're actually watching them. Teams fail to score, and managers' tactical arsenals gradually diminish to the point where James McDonald is out there pinch-hitting. It's sort of like driving through Iowa and seeing a sign that says, "New York City 1,108." Fascinating, for a few seconds. And then you realize it's going to take you 18 hours to get there, and that you're going to be consuming nothing but Shmagelz and Red Bull until you do.
Oh, and by the way, the reason you have to drive from Iowa to New York is because your spouse is there, and you've been arguing, and if you don't get there as soon as possible, you're going to wind up divorced. The specter of Jerry Meals hovered closer and closer as this game went along. Win, and keep the Cardinals at a reasonable distance. Lose, and watch your whole season collapse. That wasn't necessarily the reality, of course. Baseball doesn't work that way. But that's how it felt. Urgency built throughout the game, even as it felt more and more existentially draining.
About James McDonald pinch-hitting: it turned out that he scored a run that put the Pirates ahead. It just took a long, long time to happen. The Pirates had men on first and third in the 11th when Josh Harrison tripled and Edward Mujica intentionally walked Andrew McCutchen, but then Neil Walker, coming off the bench after sitting due to injury, hit into a double play. As Chris Resop got through the 11th through the 13th, Jose Tabata walked in the 13th, but got caught stealing. Hanrahan finally pitched the 14th and was very wild, but he stranded two batters and got through the inning unscathed. Garrett Jones led off the 16th with a double, but the Pirates failed to score when Tabata put down a terrible sacrifice attempt, got Jones nailed at third, and then got thrown out himself on what appeared to be a hit-and-run.
In the 17th, McDonald pinch-hit for Jared Hughes, and singled. McDonald moved up on a wild pitch by Joe Kelly, who then intentionally walked Pedro Alvarez. Kelly then hit Clint Barmes, loading the bases. Jones' infield single plated McDonald, and the Bucs went up 3-2 even after Tabata's line-drive out left three runners stranded.
Unfortunately, Juan Cruz came on in the bottom of the inning and allowed a single by Yadier Molina, and then McCutchen made a terrible play on Skip Schumaker's single and allowed pinch-runner Ryan Jackson to get to third. Tony Cruz's sacrifice fly tied the game. The Cardinals didn't score any more, and both teams went back to the drawing board for the 18th.
After the Pirates failed to score in the top of the inning, they turned to Wandy Rodriguez in the bottom of the 18th. Rodriguez is scheduled to start tomorrow, so it's unclear now who's actually going to pitch. (Justin Wilson making his major-league debut might be a possibility. Wilson hasn't pitched since Wednesday. Kyle McPherson, who hasn't pitched since Tuesday, might also make sense.) Again, this is a spot where it would have been better to save Correia, and then maybe the Pirates could have had him go five innings or so.
Finally, in the 19th inning, Pedro Alvarez homered to deep center off Barret Browning to make it 4-3. It wasn't very dramatic, honestly, because it was so sudden. As I type this, in the 19th, I'm beginning to feel hallucinations coming on, and the Alvarez home run doesn't yet seem real to me. There were no blown calls at the plate, no ironic twists, and not many Pirates fans around to cheer for it, with the Steelers preseason game already having begun. Just a blast off an overmatched rookie pitcher.
Then Barmes singled, Tabata doubled, Harrison walked, and McCutchen hit a two-run single to right. The Pirates led 6-3, and they shut down the Cards in the bottom of the inning (thanks in part to a great catch at the wall by Harrison, who was playing right field) for the win, Rodriguez's first in a Pirates uniform. That's right. The Pirates won a 19-inning game, an important one, in the midst of a pennant race. Mr. Meals, perhaps you can rest now?