Another September 23, another playoff berth. After clinching their first playoff berth in two decades on September 23 of last season, the Pirates did it again Tuesday, beating the Braves 3-2 as the Brewers lost to the Reds.
The win was the latest in a September in which the Pirates seem to be moving forward while the rest of the baseball world stands still. The Braves, who looked like playoff contenders most of the summer, are now long gone. The Brewers, who were the surprise leaders of the division for much of the year, are now gone too. (Or, well, at least they're no threat to the Bucs.) But the Pirates, who keep winning and winning and winning, are alive as ever.
Gerrit Cole was actually wretched in the early going -- he made a huge mess in the first that the Braves thoughtfully cleaned up for him. He walked Emilio Bonifacio to lead off the game, but Bonifacio was erased on Phil Gosselin's failed bunt attempt. Then Gosselin came home when Freddie Freeman doubled, but Russell Martin managed to throw Freeman out at third for the second half. Then Justin Upton singled, but Martin threw him out, too. All three of Atlanta's outs came either via bunt or on the bases.
The Braves then grabbed another run in the third as Cole allowed the first three runners he faced to reach base before getting Andrelton Simmons to ground into a run-scoring double play. After that, though, it was all Cole, who retired the last 17 batters he faced, throwing quality mid-90s fastballs throughout and striking out eight batters in seven innings.
The Pirates' offense came alive, too. In the fourth, Andrew McCutchen led off with a single, then moved to third on a single by Starling Marte. Marte then took off for second. Christian Bethancourt's throw was off-line, and Gosselin fell trying to field it, so McCutchen came home without a play. Then in the fifth, Travis Snider led off with a game-tying homer off Alex Wood. The Bucs finally took the lead in the sixth when McCutchen doubled and Marte dumped a double into the left-center gap.
With the win, their 86th of the season, the Pirates not only brushed the Brewers aside, they maintained their edge on the Giants in the race for home-field advantage in the Wild Card game. They're now two games back of the Cardinals for the division lead.
In the big picture, there's still the requisite complaining to be done about how the Pirates are still likely to have to coin-flip for their postseason lives, and that fate might have been avoided if they'd made a more significant financial commitment this offseason. But whatever. On balance, we're probably not as appreciative as we should be. Neal Huntington has built a team that has now made the postseason twice in a row, thanks in significant part to a string of veteran acquisitions that range from strong to outright brilliant -- Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett and, of course, Russell Martin, who continues a tremendous season in which he seems to find some way to insert himself into nearly every important game. Tonight it was with his defense -- Gerrit Cole might not have gotten through the first inning without him. Making the playoffs on a budget isn't easy, but here the Pirates are yet again. I tip my cap to them, and I'll be watching eagerly as they chase the Cardinals.