The Pirates played with fire but survived to beat the Reds in a long and sloppy game. With the win, the Pirates remain two games ahead of the Cubs in the race to host Wednesday's Wild Card game.
Starling Marte provided the winning run when he hit the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the 12th into the second row above the Clemente Wall.
"[Gregory] Polanco got on base and the pitcher was worried about him," Marte said. "I was ready for the fastball away, first pitch."
The ball was sent into right field on a low arc, which was exactly the type of drive that had a chance to cut through the swirling wind that was knocking balls down throughout the evening.
"I knew I hit it on the barrel, but I didn't know it [went] out because the wind was very hard," Marte said. "But I hit it to the best spot there in right field. When I [looked up] that's when I knew [it was gone]."
As the night dragged on and blasts of cold wind, which occasionally included rain flurries, thinned out the crowd to a couple thousand, the atmosphere in the park belied the importance of the game. A loss would have put the Pirates in a very uncomfortable position and made a trip to Chicago to face Jake Arrieta a very-suddenly-realistic and unwanted scenario. However, Marte said that those thoughts didn't enter his mind when he stepped to the plate in the 12th.
"I don't worry about the Cubs," Marte said. "I just play the game and play hard every day."
Bullpen holds firm
A source of strength all season, the Pirates bullpen came through with seven shutout innings.
"They've been doing it for us all year long," Clint Hurdle said. "As I've said before we've complicated things from time to time and been able to pitch over more than anything. That bullpen has been fantastic all season."
Six relievers combined for seven strikeouts and allowed only four hits.
The Pirates bullpen leads the league in win probability added (WPA) and it isn't close. In fact, their updated 12.24 WPA is the second highest score in the history of the statistic, which dates back to 1974. The 2013 Orioles bullpen holds the record with 13.86 WPA.
Liriano stumbles early
Francisco Liriano lasted only five innings after he ran into trouble and allowed two runs in both the second and third innings. Heading into Friday's start, he had shown signs of benefiting from an extra day's rest, but that wasn't the case tonight.
"The ball was elevated," Hurdle said. "He was pitching up in the zone more than he usually does."
Liriano allowed seven hits and four runs. He struck out four and avoided any walks.
"Overall command was off tonight," Hurdle said. "He got sharper in the fourth and the fifth. He had to battle out of some traffic. ... He wasn't as crisp as we've seen him."
The traffic Liriano was forced to battle out of in the fourth was due to some misfired throws by his fielders. With one out, Keyvius Sampson bounced a grounder to Pedro Alvarez's right who promptly tossed the ball a good eight feet over Liriano's head as he was running to cover first. After a force play removed Sampson, Tyler Holt stole second and advanced to third when Francisco Cervelli let loose an errant throw into center field.
It was Alvarez's 22nd error at first, tying him for third-most errors by a first baseman since 1970. Cervelli's throwing error was the 14th committed by a Pirates catcher, which is the second-most by any team this season.
Importance of home
Only the Cardinals have won more games at home the last three years than the Pirates.
"We have a better chance to win here than anyplace else," Clint Hurdle said, when asked about the significance of playing the Wild Card Game at home. "Our pitchers like pitching here; our hitters like hitting here."
The Pirates' cumulative 152-88 record is the product of three consecutive seasons of winning 50 or more games at PNC Park, which is a level of consistency only matched, again, by the Cardinals.
Much of the Pirates success at home stems from roster that is well-suited to the dimensions of the park. However, Hurdle believes that the special energy of a packed park can be consequential in a win-or-go-home situation.
"The most important part for me is playing in front of the fans," Hurdle said. "That's the most significant change. We know what it's like to go in play in front of a team that has crazy good fans. There is a challenge that can come along with that when the tipping points of the game start spreading."
Wild Card roster
The Pirates have used the same basic outline in constructing their past two wild card rosters. Besides the starter, they've included an emergency starter. In 2013 it was Gerrit Cole; in 2014 it was Jeff Locke because Lirano and Cole were used up during the last two games of the season. After that were seven relievers. They've also carried three catchers with the rest of the roster filled up with fielders. One suspects the same template will be used this season.
Hurdle is keeping postseason roster plans close to his vest, but he did reveal some of his thought process.
"Do you need another burner off the bench, a guy to steal a base?" Hurdle said. "Do you need the opportunity to have someone to hit, run for somebody late and then defend for somebody late? The third catcher is always interesting. ... If I got to put Sean Rodriguez behind home plate that game, I might as well walk out of the building."