I was sitting in a sea of black and gold T-shirts last October 1st anxiously awaiting the game ahead. It was the Major League Baseball wild card game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds. This game marked the first time in my lifetime that the Pirates not only had a winning season but also made the playoffs. As I looked around the stadium it seemed like everyone came out to celebrate the end of the twenty-one year losing streak because the stadium was so packed. It was a complete sell out and all seats, balconies, and overlooks were filled with screaming fans. I knew then this would be a night I would never forget.
As we all sat down after the singing of the National Anthem, PNC Park was eerily quiet. It seemed as though the only sound you could hear as Francisco Liriano took the mound were the echoes of the food vendors. You could feel the tension in the air because both the fans and players knew the whole season was on the line. The Reds center fielder, Shin-Soo Choo was the first batter up and Liriano got to work early as he struck Choo out swinging and the next two batters hit grounders resulting in easy outs. In the bottom of the first, the only Pirate that got on base was All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who was walked. The other three batters grounded and flied out ending the first inning 0-0. The top of the second inning almost perfectly mimicked the first, as there were two groundouts and another strike out for the Pirates ace Liriano. The fans began to get rowdy as the Pirates’ defense once again produced a one, two, three inning. You could feel the life returning to the fans as they began to feel more confident about their team.
Marlon Byrd led off the inning with his first postseason at bat. You could tell he was feeding off the crowd's energy as he stepped to the plate and took a huge powerful swing just missing the ball. The fans and I were chanting as loud as we could “Let’s Go Bucs” as he kept bobbing his head to our cheers. On a 2-1 pitch he hit the ball so hard it went soaring 396 feet over the left field wall for a homerun! The stadium erupted with excitement as the Pirates took a 1-0 lead over the Reds. We then directed our attention to the pitcher who seemed to be shaken up by the homerun and started chanting his last name “Cueto.” As we began to get louder, the more nervous Johnny Cueto became and eventually dropped the baseball. The next batter up was catcher Russell Martin, who has always been known to play well under pressure. He worked the count to 3-1 then hit a whopping 406 feet shot over the center field wall. Fireworks went off, flags waved high, and people were screaming as loud as they could. I have never been in an environment so loud in my life; it even gave me goose bumps.
I knew the pirates were doing well when my Dad, who is ultimate Pirate hater because of the owners, was cheering and singing along to “Sweet Caroline.” Liriano pitched another hitless inning and the pirates were really showing that they belonged here. In the bottom of the third inning with the Pirates up 2-0, McCutchen reached first on an infield single. Byrd stepped to the plate beaming with confidence after his homerun and hit a hanging curveball into centerfield for single. McCutchen was able to move up into scoring position at second as Pedro Alvarez, who was tied for the most homeruns in the MLB, was up next. I clearly remember my Dad saying, “He sucks, watch him strike out.” The first pitch after he said that Pedro hit a sacrifice fly bringing Cutch in and making it a 3-0 game. The top of the fourth inning gave the Pirates some trouble as Liriano hit Choo with a pitch giving the Reds their first base runner of the night. Choo moved up to second as Ludwick hit a single and all of the sudden the crowd started to calm down. With two outs Cincinnati’s Bruce, hit a ball into shallow centerfield driving in Choo making the score 3-1. Liriano regained his cool and struck the next batter out in four pitches giving us something to shout about going into the bottom of the fourth inning.
The crowd and I continued chanting “Cueto” as loud as we could making all of our 40,087 voices one. We knew we were getting under the pitchers skin and were hoping his nerves would get the best of him again. With one out, left fielder Marte took the plate for the Pirates and proved his worth by smacking the ball deep into left field for a double. The Reds manager knew what we knew; we got the best of Johnny Cueto. After taking the long walk to the mound, he replaced him with Sean Marshall. Cueto shamefully took off his glove and walked to the dugout with his hands on his hips. He knew he was the one who gave the Pirates life. I do not know if Marshall was nervous or the Pirates were just on fire but the next batter up, hometown kid Neal Walker, duplicated Marte’s hit sending the ball deep into left scoring Marte for a 4-1 lead. Marshall walked the next two batters loading the bases. With Pedro up next, the Reds made another pitching change bringing in J.J. Hoover as Marshall dejectedly walked off the field. Hoover was unable to cool off the Bucco’s bats as Byrd came through again with a single scoring Walker and making it Pirates 5, Reds 1. The fifth inning was pretty uneventful for Liriano who walked one and with three groundouts. For the Reds half of the inning, they made a third pitching change with Alfredo Simon, who managed to only give up one hit to Clint Barmes. After the fifth inning, my favorite part of a Pirate game starts, the Pierogie Race. Four Pierogies named Chester Cheese, Sauerkraut Saul, Jalapeno Hannah, and Oliver Onion all line up and race 280 yards around the outfield track. They pushed each other and Hannah hit Chester with her purse causing him to fall and twist his ankle. Chester was then carted off the field and sent to the emergency room. In the end it was a dough-to-dough race but Oliver Onion pulled out the win crossing the finish line first.
During the sixth inning we went to get a famous Primanti Brothers sandwich that was oozing with cheese, meat, french-fries, and coleslaw. As a tradition, my dad and I also split a tray of nachos which we do at any Pittsburgh sporting event. Fortunately for us not much happened on the field because we did not get back to our seats until the top of the seventh. Our hands were full but Liriano was cruising along giving up only one hit. Then it was time for the seventh inning stretch. I like how the whole stadium becomes one and strangers seem to become friends as they sway back and forth to the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” After the singing stopped, Russell Martin came up to bat first for the Pirates against another new pitcher, Logan Ondrusek. Since it was his thirty-second playoff game a new pitcher did not faze him at all. In fact, Martin welcomed him by sending the ball 407 feet over the Clemente wall in right field. At that moment, I could not tell what was louder, the bursting of the fireworks or the roaring crowd.
The Reds would go on to hit a homerun themselves off relief pitcher Tony Watson in the top of the eighth making it 6-1. The Pirates still had a four run lead on the Reds going to the ninth inning as Jason Grilli, the Bucs closer, took the mound to get the last three outs of the game. As usual, before he threw his first pitch, he wrote his name in the dirt on the mound. The camera zoomed in on him and the Jumbotron showed every pore and bead of sweat on his face. As he adjusted his baseball cap I was able to see the determination in his eyes. It was then that I realized the Pirates were going to win. I remember everyone around me standing up and trying to get a better view of the history that was being made at PNC Park. Grilli, full of confidence, struck out the first batter on only 4 pitches making our dream only two outs away. The first pitch Todd Frazier of the Reds was hit into left field and Marte was able to catch it for an easy out.
Everyone at PNC Park was anxiously awaiting the last out; even the workers came to watch the Pirates snap the twenty-year playoff drought. My heart felt like it was beating so loud that I thought I could hear it over the rumble of the crowd. I can not remember Grilli’s pitch to Cozart but the next thing I knew the crowd was going crazy and the Jolly Rodger was being raised. The Pirates were jumping on top of each other and jumping around like little kids. This truly was an “I must be dreaming” or “pinch me” moment. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for the first time since 1992, were entering October as a winner of a wild card playoff game. BUCtober, as it was called the next day in the paper, officially began that night. My dad and I were not only there to see it, but to feel it.