The curtain officially came down on the first half of the season this evening and fittingly the Pirates walked-off to a standing ovation.
In a game interrupted by a two hour and 20 minute rain delay, the Pirates defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-1, scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 14th. The victory completed a three game sweep of the Brewers, extended the Pirates' winning streak to nine and improved their record to a Major League best 51-30.
It was a long day of baseball on the banks of the Allegheny River, and it felt at times as if the universe wasn't quite ready to let the Pirates first half of the season come to an end.
When it finally did end, it ended in dramatic fashion; which is just about what you'd expect at this point, right?
Russell Martin, a player who may prove to be the most significant free agent signing in recent Pirates' history, singled home Gaby Sanchez from second base. Sanchez got on base via an infield single. Yes, infield single. And then, wait for it, wait one more second: Sanchez was on second base because he stole it. Yep.
And that Martin single? Well, it was a ground ball just perfectly placed, just perfectly paced, eluding and rolling past the outstretched and lunging Brewers' shortstop. By the time the ball was picked up by Carlos Gomez, Sanchez was steaming towards home with what remained of the crowd of 35,351 somehow cheering and holding their breath at the same time. The throw came in high, flying over the catcher's head at almost the precise moment that Sanchez's long slide finally crossed home plate.
"Russell did a good job hitting it up the middle and I was able to truck it home," Sanchez said.
The 14th inning heroics came after a day in which almost everything that has defined this team over the first 81 games was on display:
First, the rain delay removed the Pirates' scheduled starting pitcher, Charlie Morton, from the game early. So they had to adjust on the fly, working around not having the starter they were expecting.
Pressed into duty early, the bullpen did what it's done all season, i.e. provide shut down innings. In particular Vin Mazzaro, an afterthought in April, came in and posted five scoreless innings. On the day, the Pirates collection of relievers, who identify themselves as members of the The Shark Tank, bit off 12 innings without allowing a run. (They now have a string of 21 scoreless innings.)
Assisting the bullpen was the defense, which did make two errors on the day, but took away two or three hits as well. Neil Walker stood out, making two real nice plays on ground balls hit by Segura.
Trailing the game 1-0 going into the bottom of the eighth, Starling Marte hit a one out single. He advanced to second on ground out by Walker. Then Andrew McCutchen drove him home with a line drive single to left. Once again Marte and McCutchen provided the offensive shot-in-the-arm the club needed.
Further indications of the changing of the guard at shortstop occurred in the bottom of the ninth when Jordy Mercer was brought in to pinch hit for Clint Barmes with the winning run on second and two out. Mercer walked. After Mercer walked, Brandon Inge came up with a chance to be today's unlikely hero and struck out.
Then, finally, the 14th rolled around and Russell Martin, arguably the team's first half MVP, came up and hit a pinch hit, game winning, single; prompting another playing of "A New Pirates' Generation" over PNC Park's speakers as his teammates poured from the dugout.
"It’s fun. Obviously winning is fun" Martin said of the first half of the season, "But just being on a team with a bunch of guys who play with their hearts out there and enjoy the game, it’s definitely been a pleasure."
For a team that has defied the probabilities for much of the first three months, this win was a most fitting way to close the first chapter of the season.
"I guess it was a good first 81 games." Hurdle said afterwards. Tonight there are a lot of Pirates fans who would find that assessment an understatement.