The Pirates are one win away from advancing to the National League Championship Series after defeating the Cardinals in a 5-3 thriller.
For all the advanced baseball analytics that have gone into making this improbable season a reality, this evening the Pirates won because of, or perhaps despite of, Clint Hurdle's unique tactical approach. The Pirates' manager has proven to be impressively open to new ideas. Hurdle's openness to the value of defensive shifts and limiting sacrifice bunts has helped this club tremendously. But he has not shaken the instinct that bullpen pitchers require roles, and that sometimes you just need to stick with guys because, well, they're your guys. Tonight both of these instincts were put to the test, and Hurdle and Bucs survived.
In the eighth, with the score 3-2 and Carlos Beltran due up, Hurdle called on Mark Melancon, because it is his role, even though Tony Watson would have given the platoon advantage. Beltran promptly tied the game with a home run. In the bottom of the eighth, with men on first and second and one out, Hurdle stuck with Pedro Alvarez against left-hander Kevin Siegrist instead of using Gaby Sanchez, who increased the odds of a hit by 15 percent, and Pedro delivered with a game-winning single. (Pedro's batting average vs. LHP this year, .180; Siegrist vs. LHB, .118)
Another questionable move was allowing Francisco Liriano to bat in the bottom of the fifth with a man on first no outs after he pitched an very wobbly top of the inning, in which the Cards scored two runs and tied the game at 2-2. But, here again, I guess Hurdle's instincts survive scrutiny, because Liriano did retire the Cards in order in the sixth, even though they were all hard-hit balls.
But enough about tactics.
To borrow one of Hurdle's favorite expressions: Tonight the 2013 Pirates put a foot down. I guess we shouldn't be surprised. But somehow it still feels surprising. The Pirates out-dueled, out-clutch-hit, and out-fielded a playoff-tested, staid team this evening. It was the type of game that you would expect to get away from a bunch of upstarts, but that didn't happen to these Bucs. Instead, supported by a crowd that was revved up after spending an afternoon tailgating under a brilliant sun on this mid-October day, the Pirates bounced back from questionable calls, self-inflicted wounds and a deflating rally to take a stranglehold on this series. They put a foot down. They were, in a word, resilient. They showed guts. They were clutch. And, it's because of these unquantifiable and intangiable things that the Pirates find themselves on the brink of the NLCS.