The Pittsburgh Pirates might as well be the New York Yankees right now. They just bought a playoff win. Over the off-season they signed Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin as free agents. At the August waiver trade deadline they added Marlon Byrd for a playoff push. Tonight that trio led the Pirates to their first playoff victory in PNC Park history, and sent them to the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The biggest performance tonight came from Liriano. The Pirates signed him to a two-year, $14 M deal over the off-season. The deal hit a snag when Liriano broke his right arm, but was later adjusted to a one year, $1 M deal with a vesting option. In the end, the Pirates will get Liriano for about two years and $12 M, and he was worth every penny of that in 2013. That continued tonight when he showed that he was the team ace, pitching seven innings and giving up one earned run, even though he admitted after the game that he was under the weather. He ran into a jam in the fourth, but got out of it by striking out Joey Votto, getting Brandon Phillips to pop out, then striking out Todd Frazier to end the inning with just one run allowed.
The Pirates also added Russell Martin as their other big free agent over the off-season. Martin was signed to a two-year, $17 M deal, with the Pirates out-bidding the Yankees. All year he has been a huge value due to his defense. Tonight, it was his offense that was the key. Martin blasted two home runs, including one key moment when he put the Pirates up 2-0 after the fans at PNC Park started a “Cue-to” chant.
Finally there was the big splash at the trade deadline. The Pirates traded top prospects Dilson Herrera and Vic Black in exchange for Marlon Byrd. That’s two months of Marlon Byrd for two prospects who ranked in their top 10-15 guys. It was a total rental. And Byrd was worth every penny of that move tonight when he started the scoring, hitting a solo homer to lead off the second inning.
“I saw Cueto was having a hard time with his fast ball location,” Byrd said. “I knew at some point he was going to use a slider or changeup. My first at-bat, I tried to sit soft. He threw me a changeup.”
Byrd and Martin gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead in the second inning. They added another run in the third on a Pedro Alvarez sac fly. That came one play after Zack Cozart booted what could have been a double play ball, and would have been the second out. Instead, it allowed Andrew McCutchen to go from first to third, leading to the third run of the game.
Two more runs were added in the fourth inning. Starling Marte doubled, knocking Cueto out of the game. Neil Walker followed that up with an RBI double, giving the Pirates a 4-1 lead at the time. Byrd brought in another run with a ground out, scoring Neil Walker from third and making it 5-1. Russell Martin later added a solo homer to make it 6-1, and the score was cut to 6-2 on a Shin-Soo Choo home run against Tony Watson.
The three acquisitions came up huge for the Pirates. Liriano set the tone on one side of the ball, while Martin and Byrd led the offense, combining for four of the six runs. There was also the home field advantage. The fans came dressed in black for #PNCBlackout night, and were as loud as PNC Park has ever been. They taunted the Reds. They cheered the Pirates. They chanted for Liriano after Travis Snider came on to pinch hit for him, even with Liriano in the dugout at the time. They sang “Don’t stop believing” after every Clint Barmes intro, including one where he recorded his first playoff hit.
“That was my first post-season hit. I went to the post-season in 2009, and unfortunately went 0-fer,” Barmes said. “It definitely meant a lot stepping in, and to hear the crowd as electric as they were all night from the first pitch on, was a lot of fun. I think anyone in that clubhouse can tell you how many chills, the chills that lasted all night from the crowd, and just how much they were in the game. It made it exciting from the first pitch to the last.”
Jason Grilli came on to close out the game, even though the Pirates had a four run lead and it wasn’t a save situation. The crowd was on their feet waiting for Grilli to come out, and exploded when Grilli got the final out of the game.
“I’ve never had so much love in my career, attention, respect,” Jason Grilli said. “When you have that backing, it’s easier to put success in front of you and achieve the things you want to, to contribute to winning. I’m so grateful for these fans. I think every guy in this room is for sure. They listen to a tweet by a few guys. Dressed in black. They were on their feet from pitch one to the last one.”
The Pirates will go to the NLDS where they play the St. Louis Cardinals in a best of five series. Game one will be in St. Louis on Thursday at 5:07 PM EST, followed by Game two on Friday at 1:07 PM EST. They return to Pittsburgh for games on Sunday, and Monday if necessary. Those times haven’t been announced yet.