For a middling team, a non-contender, it would have been a nice, exciting win in the dog days of summer. Unusual, too, and worth lingering on for a few moments, a bright spot in an otherwise interminable slog to the end of the season.
For the Pirates, the Majors’ third team with 60 wins on the year, and one trying to flag down the unflappable St. Louis Cardinals, it was nothing short of spectacular and pulse-pounding theater.
And this is coming from a guy who “watched” the game through twitter and the play-by-play function of a mobile phone app, roughly 650 miles from Cincinnati.
However one consumed Starling Marte’s ninth-inning performance Friday, it was one for the books. It easily can be argued that for all the talent present in the Pirates’ outfield, only Marte could have made both of the plays that he did. Andrew McCutchen doesn’t have the arm to throw out a runner, let alone by 25 feet like Marte did to Brandon Phillips, and Gregory Polanco is still learning how to properly deploy his frame when trying to make difficult catches.
Marte is the total package defensively, and while fans go crazy for walk-off home runs, what he did Friday night was even better, for my money. Not once, but twice he ripped out the hearts of Reds fans hoping their team plays spoiler for the rest of the summer. There is nothing quite like the deflated silence that falls over a crowd after a presumed RBI single turns into a highlight reel play for the other guys.
A close second to that crestfallen hush would be the murmurs of disbelief after the game is stolen by the same player, mere minutes later. Marlon Byrd hit a sinking liner to left field that by all rights should have tied the game, but Marte got a super first step and made a phenomenal diving catch so forceful it threw his lower body all over the place and nearly broke his wrist.
Perhaps when Mike Trout moonlighted in left field for the Angels he would have been capable of a similar play, and perhaps Yasiel Puig and Jason Heyward could have pulled it off as well, but beyond those three, it is very difficult to imagine any other corner outfielders coming up with the catch. Many probably would not have even tried, lest the ball get past them and turn into a game winner—for the other team.
The plays themselves were spectacular, but it was the pennant race backdrop that made them ones that will be re-lived for years. There have been some incredible moments in past years, but they simply don’t carry the same weight as Marte’s.
Rob Mackowiak’s walk-off grand slam and game-tying home run in respective games of a doubleheader against the Cubs in 2004 comes to mind, as does Brian Giles’ walk-off grand slam off of Billy Wagner to cap an improbable ninth inning comeback in 2001.
The 2001 Pirates finished 62-100. The 2004 edition 72-89, with their season not even having enough purpose to require that they contest all 162 games. Those plays were bright spots, but fade in the memory with time.
I doubt Marte’s will, especially if the Bucs flag down the Cardinals and win the division, or make a deep run in the post-season. The urgency of a pennant race magnifies every moment, good and bad. It sears an image into the consciousness so vivid one can replay crucial events with considerable accuracy in the theater of the mind.
Starling Marte made an incredible catch and throw to save the Pirates’ bacon. As great and special as those plays were, they pale in comparison to their setting; a third straight summer of scintillating, enthralling, emotionally exhausting pennant race baseball, featuring a team that ceased being a surprising entrant some time ago.
The Pittsburgh Pirates.