Over the years we’ve seen the Pittsburgh Pirates engaged in some fun comeback wins. Some of the most fun, but small, comebacks would be July 11, 2015, as well as July 12, 2015 — two consecutive games that the Pirates walked off against the St. Louis Cardinals. The first was Andrew McCutchen’s home run in the bottom of the 14th, and the second was Gregory Polanco’s RBI single into left, which scored Jung Ho Kang.
But the truth is, as fun as those games were, the Pirates weren’t dead in the water at any point in either game — although at times things looked bleak. For example, in the July 11 game, the lowest win probability percentage for the Pirates, according to Baseball Reference, was 11 percent, but that came in the fifth inning. In the top of the 14th inning, the Cardinals boosted their expected win percentage to 85 percent. As we all know, Pittsburgh would go on to win that game, courtesy of Cutch — it also resulted in perhaps the greatest Pirates’ broadcast call of all-time.
As for the second game, in the bottom of the 10th, St. Louis had a 96 percent chance to win. In that instance, the Pirates were down 5-3 against then-closer Trevor Rosenthal, who, by the way, came in with an ERA of 0.67 at the time. Jordy Mercer led off the inning with a single. Neil Walker then flew out to center, followed by McCutchen grounding out to third base; Mercer advanced to second. Starling Marte then singled to right, which scored Mercer, making the game 5-4.
A couple singles later, off the bats of Kang and Francisco Cervelli, Marte scored, 5-5. Travis Ishikawa walked. With the bases loaded, Polanco looped a single into shallow right, scoring Kang and giving the Pirates back-to-back nights of excitement heading into the All-Star Break, just 2.5 games back of St. Louis.
Those games were great, and despite them coming during an important season with a talented Pirates team, those weren’t even close to the most improbable win in Pirates’ history.
That game came on July 28, 2001. Many of you probably remember this game. The Houston Astros were in town. The Pirates were bad, coming into the game at 39-62, and eventually finishing the season 62-100, the first season in PNC Park history.
The Astros, on the other hand, came in 56-46, four games back of the Chicago Cubs. That Houston team was also comprised of many of the players that are synonymous with the Astros name, like Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell, Roy Oswalt, and Craig Biggio.
The afternoon affair, rescheduled from April 17 due to snow, kicked off at 1:06 and only lasted two-and-a-half hours. Through the first four innings, it was a close game. Oswalt pitched for Houston, while Bronson Arroyo was slated to start for the Pirates.
It was three up and three down for both pitchers to begin the game. To begin the second inning, Vinny Castilla turned around the first pitch he saw from Arroyo, launching it to deep center field and ultimately clearing the fence. Houston, 1-0.
In the bottom of the second inning, Pittsburgh would try, and succeed, to return the favor. Brian Giles led off with a double, but the next two batters recorded outs. With Kevin Young at the plate and 2-2 the count, it looked like the Pirates were in trouble of stranding a lead off double at second. But Young came through with a ground ball that snuck through into left field, scoring Giles from second. 1-1.
In the third inning, Orlando Merced and Biggio would both single, but Arroyo managed to strand the two runners. The Pirates went 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the inning.
In the fourth, Arroyo again got himself into some trouble. After securing outs against the first two batters of the inning, things began to go off the rails before settling back down. Daryle Ward singled, then Tony Eusebio walked. A wild pitch to Merced advanced the runners, while Merced intentionally walked in order to get to the pitcher. On a 1-0 count, Oswalt flew out to center, a big inning avoided.
Giles would single in the bottom of the fourth, but that’s all the Pirates would get.
That’s when things would go south for the Pirates. A couple singles and then a sacrifice bunt set the second matchup between Arroyo and Castilla. On a 1-2 pitch, Arroyo made a mistake and Castilla belted the pitch for his second long ball of the game. The next two batters went quietly. Houston, 4-1.
The Pirates again went 1-2-3 in the fifth and not much else happened until the bottom of the seventh inning. A single by Aramis Ramirez and then a double by John Vander Wal to lead off the inning gave way for Young. A sacrifice fly brought the Pirates within two. A single was followed up by a strikeout and a fly ball. Houston, 4-2.
The Astros would go on to get two in the eighth, and then two more in the ninth. Castilla hit his third home run of the game, and a Merced groundout scored Ward. Houston, 6-2.
After a quiet Pirates’ eighth, a couple singles and then a Julio Lugo double scored a run. A Berkman groundout scored another run. A strikeout, walk, and groundout concluded the inning. Houston, 8-2.
With Michael Jackson on the mound for his second inning of work, the Pirates’ hopes of winning looked bleak. After a couple fly outs, Pittsburgh was down to its final out. At this point, the Pirates’ win probability percentage chance to win was 0.02 percent, giving the Astros a whopping 99.98 percent chance to win.
If you’re wondering where that ranks all-time, it’s third. This particular game is topped only by a 1952 affair between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, as well as a 1990 game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers.
But then Young doubled. That’s all well and good but it was still an 8-2 game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Pat Meares then homered to left, making it an 8-4 game.
Adam Hyzdu singled off Jackson, and Tike Redman followed that up with a single. At that point, with the Pirates down four and the tying run on deck, perhaps a glimmer of optimism started to kindle inside PNC Park that afternoon.
Jack Wilson singled, which scored Hyzdu. Redman advanced to second. 8-5. At that point, manager Larry Dierker decided he should switch to his closer, Billy Wagner. That was the right call. Wagner was an All-Star that year, and maintained a 2.93 ERA coming into the contest.
By this point in the game, the Astros still had a 95 percent chance to win. Jason Kendall then came to the plate to face Wagner. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit by the pitch.
With Pittsburgh down 8-5, Giles came to the plate with the bases loaded. All of a sudden, a game that looked like it was signed, sealed, and delivered, the Pirates had a chance to tie the game with one swing — or better yet, win the game with one swing.
Giles was in the midst of the best multi-year stretch of his career. He’d been an All-Star in 2001, as well as the year prior. 2001 was also the third of four straight years in which Giles hit 35 or more home runs. He was the best player on the team and there’s nobody the fans would rather have hitting.
Giles took the first pitch from Wagner — a ball — to make the count 1-0. Wagner opted for the heater on the next pitch and caught far too much of the plate. Giles turned on the ball and knew immediately that it was gone. “Buccos win by way of a grand slam!”
6, 7, 8, 9. Unbelievably: Pittsburgh, 9-8.