October 1, 2013: Losers no more: Pirates break postseason drought with win in 2013 NL Wild Card Game
The play is known as “The Slide” and it served two functions. The first was immediate; it allowed the Atlanta Braves to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2 in Game Seven of the 1992 National League Championship Series and advance to the World Series. The second ushered in an era of futility for the Pirates that is unmatched in major-league history. The Pirates won three straight National League East Division titles from 1990 to 1992 and they did not have another winning season until 2013. Twenty losing seasons in a row is not only a major-league record but also the mark for a North American professional sports team.
“The Slide” itself occurred on October 14, 1992, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Braves first baseman Sid Bream — bad right knee and all — rumbled home from second base with the game-winning run on a single by Francisco Cabrera. His slide managed to avoid the tag of Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere, who needed to move slightly up the first-base line to take the throw from left fielder Barry Bonds.
In 2013, the Pirates, under manager Clint Hurdle, finally broke the string of losing seasons. At the midpoint of the year, they were 51-30 with that 51st victory coming in the last game of a season-high nine-game winning streak. They faded slightly in the second half; after finishing June and July with the best record in baseball, the Bucs were a combined 29-26 in August and September. Hurdle — who was named the 2013 National League Manager of the Year — had his team in first place in the National League Central Division a total of 56 days. They finished the season in second place, three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
On September 9, the Pirates shut out the Texas Rangers, 1-0, to score their 82nd win, assuring Pittsburgh of its first winning baseball team in two decades. Two weeks later, a win over the Chicago Cubs put Pittsburgh in the postseason. Finally, 21 years later, the Pirates played in the postseason again, this time as a wild-card team.
“Of all the things I've reported over the years,” wrote Ron Cook in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 24, 2013, “this might have the deepest personal significance: I have lived long enough to see the Pirates get back to the playoffs.”
Surely, Cook wasn't the only Pittsburgher to express similar sentiments or those of Pirates closer Jason Grilli.
“I hope that [Roberto] Clemente Bridge is swaying a little bit right now,” Grilli said while the Pirates celebrated with the time-honored baseball tradition of the champagne shower. “Those bars and everything downtown, I hope people are raising their glass right now. I'm sure they are.”1
“It's so exciting to see it finally happen after 20 years,” said fan Donna Vaughn in the September 25 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We stuck by them, and it's time to celebrate.”
While the Pirates made their fans suffer, the professional teams in the city gave them reasons to cheer. In the 21 NFL seasons since the slide, the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs 14 times. They played in four Super Bowls, winning two of them.
In the same time period, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL played 20 seasons (the 2004-05 season was eventually canceled by a labor dispute) and appeared in the postseason in 16 of them. They won what was then the organization's third Stanley Cup in 2009.
“For an entire generation, the Pirates have been the penance that Pittsburgh has served for having the success of the Steelers and the Penguins,” said fan Terry Haines.2
The Pirates also exorcised some recent demons with their 2013 playoff appearance. In 2011 and 2012 they had late-season collapses that, at the least, cost them the chance at a winning record.
In 2011, Hurdle's first season at the helm, they were seven games over .500 on July 19 at 51-44 but finished out the month by going 3-8. Then their combined mark in August and September was 18-38 and they finished 72-90.
The 2012 season might have been worse, the Pirates were 63-47 on August 8 but the wheels fell off and they finished with a 79-83 record. Over the final 52 games, they were 16-36 including a 7-21 September.
Against this backdrop, the Pirates would host their first playoff game since October 11, 1992, when they beat the Braves 7-1 at Three Rivers Stadium in Game Five of the NLCS. By sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati in the final three games of the regular season, the Pirates earned the right to host them in the wild-card game, a one-game, loser-goes-home format, that MLB had introduced in 2012.
The Reds were 90-72 and had a power offense that scored the third most runs (698) in the league. The pitching staff that manager Dusty Baker had at his disposal was formidable as well. They allowed 589 runs, fourth lowest in the NL; they were fourth in ERA with a 3.38.
The Pirates, with a 94-68 record, ranked ninth with 634 runs scored, second in runs allowed with 577, and third with a 3.26 ERA.
Francisco Liriano, the NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2013, got the start for the Pirates. The seasoned left-hander was 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts. He had 163 strikeouts and 63 walks in 161 innings and allowed only nine home runs. Liriano faced the Reds four times during the season and was 0-3 with 3.70 ERA.
The Reds countered with Johnny Cueto, who was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA but was limited to just 11 starts because of injuries.3 He faced Pittsburgh twice in 2013; he received a no-decision after leaving the game with right triceps pain after 4⅓ innings as the Reds lost 3-1 at Pittsburgh on April 13. The next time Cueto took the mound against the Pirates, he threw a gem, going eight shutout innings. He gave up just one hit and allowed only three baserunners while striking out six in a 6-0 win on May 31 at PNC Park. In 13 career starts at PNC, Cueto posted a 1.90 ERA.
A then-record crowd of 40,487 jammed into PNC Park, which was hosting its first playoff game. The Bucs didn't wait long to give them something to cheer about. In the second, Marlon Byrd, who was 7-for-12 in his career against Cueto, homered to left to lead things off. With one out, Russell Martin homered to left-center and the crowd then took to mocking the Reds hurler, chanting “CUE-TO, CUE-TO.”
“I loved it, it was awesome,” Martin said of the chant, which is usually used after a goalie allows some pucks to slip past him in a hockey game.4
Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP, led off the third with an infield single. With one out he went to third when Byrd singled to shortstop Zack Cozart. Pedro Alvarez knocked him in with a sacrifice fly to center.
In the fourth, Shin-Soo Choo became the Reds’ first baserunner when he was hit by a pitch. Former Buc Ryan Ludwick got the Reds’ first hit and Cincinnati had runners on first and second with no out. But Liriano struck out Joey Votto and induced Brandon Phillips to pop to second base. Jay Bruce singled home Choo with a hit to left, Todd Frazier nearly hit a three-run home run but the ball was just foul. Ultimately, he became a strikeout victim.
Starling Marte doubled with one out in the fourth and that was it for Cueto but relief pitcher Sean Marshall wasn't the answer. The veteran southpaw faced three batters and didn't record an out. Neil Walker doubled home Marte, McCutchen was walked intentionally Justin Morneau loaded the bases when he walked. With right-hander J.J. Hoover now on the hill for the Reds, Byrd hit into a force out and Walker scored to make it 5-1.
Cozart's leadoff walk in the fifth didn't amount to anything when pinch-hitter Chris Heisey grounded into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play. Liriano pitched around one-out doubles in both the sixth and seventh innings.
Meanwhile, the Pirates had yet to be retired in order and the seventh inning was no different. In that inning, Logan Ondrusek became the Reds’ sixth pitcher and Martin greeted him with a leadoff homer. Liriano was done after the seventh, after giving up just one run on four hits, a walk, and a hit batter, and striking out five.
In the eighth, Choo hit a ball that a fan reached over the right-field wall to interfere with. It was ruled a home run and a video review confirmed the call but all that really did was set the final score at 6-2.
The Pirates had a winning season, made the playoffs and won the wild-card game. The season would continue, and they would meet the Cardinals in the NL Division Series.
This article appears in "Moments of Joy and Heartbreak: 66 Significant Episodes in the History of the Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2018), edited by Jorge Iber and Bill Nowlin. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, Hockey-Reference.com, and the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates Media Guide
1 Bill Brink, “Marte's HR Helps Clinch Playoff Berth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 2013: D1.
2 Kaitlynn Riely, “Baseball? In October? Git aht!” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 25, 2013: B8.
3 Bill Brink, “Next Stop: St. Louis, Where the Cardinals Await Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 2, 2013: D3.