Left to right, Francisco Liriano, John Axford and Stolmy Pimentel celebrate clinching a playoff spot Tuesday after the Pirates' 3-2 win against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Maybe the champagne didn't taste quite as sweet as last season. There's nothing quite like the first time in anything. The Pirates ended 20 years of losing baseball when they made the playoffs in 2013. It will be hard to top that memory for the team or its fan base. It won't be topped until the club wins a World Series.
But the postseason slot the Pirates secured Tuesday night might be more impressive. It became official at 9:58 when, in a surreal scene in front of several hundred fans chanting, "Let's Go Bucs!" at Turner Field, Tony Watson got the Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman to bounce into a 3-6-3 double play, securing a 3-2 win. The players rushed onto the lawn and started a celebration that carried into their clubhouse and long into the night even though they still have plenty to accomplish in the final five days of the regular season.
And why not?
This postseason trip is hard-earned and well-deserved, perhaps even more than the one a year ago. It comes after the Pirates started the season 10-18. It comes after they lost seven games in a row in August. It comes after they were swept in a three-game series in early September in St. Louis and were, in many places, left for dead with a 71-68 record.
The Pirates have gone 15-3 since.
"I love our club," manager Clint Hurdle gushed after emerging from dead center of the clubhouse party. "Getting it done one time last season, that's cool, it was magic. But to do it back-to-back, that's another big step for our organization. Our city deserves it. Our city's got it."
Somehow, it seemed fitting, at least for Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister, that this latest celebration took place in an Atlanta ballpark. He has been with the organization for 29 years and remembers the pain the Pirates and all of Pittsburgh felt in another Atlanta venue -- Fulton County Stadium -- in the 1992 playoffs, the Pirates' most recent winning season before last season.
"To do this on this field in this city against that organization is what I'll always remember," Banister said.
Here's the amazing part:
The Pirates are going to the playoffs despite releasing Wandy Rodriguez in May, getting just seven wins from Francisco Liriano, watching Gerrit Cole go on the disabled list twice and trading Jason Grilli in June.
Jared Hughes, Watson and Mark Melancon picked up for Grilli. But nothing was more significant to the Pirates' sustained success, Hurdle said, than Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley coming up from the minor leagues and stepping into the rotation, which was missing Rodriguez, Liriano and Cole. "It wasn't just keeping your head above water," Hurdle said. "We got better."
The Pirates' lineup also had its issues. Russell Martin, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen spent time on the disabled list. Pedro Alvarez had a miserable year, offensively and defensively. For much of the season, the team got little power production from first base and right field.
Martin, who missed a month early in the season because of a hamstring injury, has handled the pitching staff superbly, played great defense and delivered big hit after hit, perhaps none bigger than his three-run, eighth-inning home run Friday night to beat the Milwaukee Brewers. Walker, who sat out two weeks in June after an appendectomy, hit 21 home runs to set the Pirates franchise record for a second baseman. McCutchen hardly missed a beat after his serious rib injury in early August and is having another MVP-caliber season. He singled and scored the Pirates' first run Tuesday night and doubled and scored to give to give them their 3-2 lead in the sixth inning.
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