This was a classic in almost any sense.
We've seen some crazy ones before. A lot of those marked time from one largely forgettable, losing season to the next. This one, though, it came on the backdrop of the best pennant race Pittsburgh has seen in years in a crucial showdown with the team that just never loses.
On a sticky July night at PNC Park, the two best teams in the National League went toe-to-toe for five hours, Vic Carapazza became the most hated umpire in Pittsburgh since Jerry Meals, A.J. Burnett brought the agitated crowd to life with a home run, and the Pirates staged an eighth-inning rally and overcame two extra-inning threats by St. Louis, ending with Andrew McCutchen's two-run walk-off home run to beat the Cardinals, 6-5, early Sunday morning.
Carapazza, the home plate umpire, lit the powder keg that was PNC Park during its biggest series of 2015. Burnett had struck out Mark Reynolds on a sharp breaking curve, but Carapazza said Reynolds had tipped it. Replays clearly showed Reynolds got no piece of the ball. Reynolds smoked the very next pitch into the second level of bleachers in left field for a solo homer and a 1-0 Cardinals lead.
Francisco Cervelli was livid, and was ejected. Clint Hurdle was tossed shortly after that. How Burnett managed to keep his composure after being victimized by a phantom foul tip call for the second time in a week is incredible.
This was the kind of event that leads to rule changes, and I suspect we'll see more conversation about being able to review foul tips in the coming days. But that didn't help a Pirates team fighting for the NL Central in the here and now.
The Pirates were going to have to overcome more than just the one run, though. The Cardinals opened up a 3-0 lead with single runs in the third and fifth innings. Matt Carpenter reached base as the leadoff man in both innings. He singled and scored on Yadier Molina's sacrifice fly in the third, then was hit by a pitch and made his way around the bases, scoring on a Pedro Alvarez error.
The frustration had mounted at a packed PNC, and Burnett brought the crowd to its feet with a solo homer of his own, the fifth homer of his career and his first since 2005. It was the loudest I've heard the park since the 2013 playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Pirates didn't build off of that. Gregory Polanco followed by reaching on a Kolten Wong error, and Neil Walker singled, but McCutchen struck out looking. (Carapazza didn't have the strongest grasp of the strike zone, either.)
John Lackey held the Pirates offense pretty well in check, striking out five and walking two, allowing the one run on five hits in 6 2-3 innings. Burnett had six strikeouts, three walks and six hits allowed in 6 1-3 innings.
The Pirates finally broke through to tie it against Kevin Siegrist in the eighth. McCutchen drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on an errant pickoff attempt. Jung-Ho Kang singled him home, and Pedro Alvarez strangely got his 700th key single this week, plating Kang.
Things got strange again in the 10th, when Reynolds whiffed on a bunt attempt and Molina was on the other end of a back-pick, getting caught off of first base by Chris Stewart. Of course, Reynolds proceeded to line his second homer of the night into the left field bleachers for a 4-3 St. Louis lead.
Kang led off the bottom of the inning against Trevor Rosenthal with a hustle triple off the right field wall. I'm afraid his aggressiveness is going to hurt him at some point, but the throw to the infield wasn't handled cleanly and Kang made it without a play. Stewart came through with a single to right to score Kang with the tying run.
A few strange moves were made (by Dave Jauss, I guess) around this time. Deolis Guerra pitched instead of Mark Melancon in the 10th. (To Guerra's credit, he rebounded from the Reynolds homer to blank the Cards in the 11th and 12th.) Sean Rodriguez, the last man on the bench, was double-switched into left field, taking Starling Marte out of the game and putting the pitcher in the No. 4 spot in the lineup, behind McCutchen.
Cutch was rendered a non-factor in the 11th, intentionally walked before Guerra grounded into a force out to end the inning.
The Cardinals added another run in the 14th, going back ahead, 5-4. Carpenter drew a leadoff walk off of Vance Worley, and stole second base. Stewart's throw looked to have a strong shot at getting Carpenter, even as it was low. Jordy Mercer handled the bounce a little nonchalantly, though, the ball rolled into center field and Carpenter took third with no outs in the inning. Worley got pinch-hitter Tony Cruz to ground out into a drawn-in infield. For some reason, he pitched to Jhonny Peralta with first base open and notoriously light-hitting Pete Kozma on deck, instead of setting up the double play. Peralta also looked to have struck out, at least to the fans in the stands, but a foul tip was called. The replays weren't very conclusive on this one. Peralta followed with a single to left to score Carpenter.
Worley was due up third in the bottom of the 14th, with no position players -- even underwhelming, Pirates-style bench players -- available to hit. Walker, batting right-handed against lefty Nick Greenwood, who was called up before the game, led off with a single. At least it probably wouldn't all be up to Worley with two outs.
Then McCutchen turned all the night's frustration around on one pitch, depositing it in the ivy just beyond the center field wall, sealing one of the most emotional, up-and-down games the Pirates have been involved in in a long time.
The Pirates pulled to 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central and secured at least a split of the four-game series, with the possibility of a series win still alive.
A couple other things:
-- This was the best baseball game I've attended at least this year, and I enjoyed about two seconds of it. Between facing the Cardinals in general, the blown call and the early deficit, my nerves were shot.
-- Nobody embodies the Pittsburgh fans and their passion the way A.J. Burnett does. His struggle is the fans' struggle. Their struggle is his. He went to bat swinging from his heels at the first pitch and, thankfully, eventually made contact on one. One of the cooler moments at PNC Park ever.
-- Kang had another great game. He had two big hits, and kept up his excellent third-base defense, which has been a joy to watch this week. He didn't even tuck his jersey back in after the slide on his triple, for which I love him even more.
-- Keeping a scorebook is cool. Everyone does it, and you should, too. It's especially fulfilling on a night like this -- a souvenir you can't put a price on.
-- That game was pretty cool.