The Clemente Bridge leading from PNC Park into the downtown was delirious. Revelers perched themselves atop the parapets, shouting chants, blowing horns, brandishing flags, and high-fiving random strangers. One man found himself so caught up in the moment that he stripped to his drawers and took a celebratory plunge 40 feet below into the Allegheny River.1
For Pittsburgh Pirate fans, ground down by two decades of front-office failures and on-field fiascos, the moment was surreal. This once-proud club finally had righted itself and not only broken .500, not only reached the postseason, but also had just trounced the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in the NL Wild-Card game — thanks in large part to a reclamation-project pitcher who in some ways symbolized the franchise and its 2013 resurgence.
The entire city was electrified for the Pirates’ first playoff appearance since 1992. Adding to the frenzied mood was the fact that these two Central Division rivals were on something less than amicable terms. For the better part of two seasons, their clashes had been punctuated by beanballs, nasty glares, and harsh words.
The going rate for standing-room-only tickets exceeded $200 as the paid attendance hit 40,487, the largest in PNC Park’s 12-year history. The atmosphere was more like that of an English soccer match than that of a baseball game. The enthusiasm of the black-shirted throng was raw, almost feral. They booed the Reds off the field at the end of batting practice, and the deafening din during pre-game introductions smothered the voice of public address announcer Tim DeBacco.
The man who would be named NL Comeback Player of the Year was on the mound for the Pirates. Francisco Liriano, who signed a free agent contract just before spring training and then spent the first five weeks of the season marooned on the disabled list, was an afterthought coming into the year. Yet somehow he emerged as the linchpin of the staff, going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA. Lefties hit just .131 against him, which gave him a distinct advantage against Cincinnati, whose three best hitters (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo) all swung from the left side. Liriano was matched against the Reds’ ace, Johnny Cueto, who had dominated the Pirates throughout his career, but who had made just 11 starts in an injury-plagued 2013.
The Pirates struck first. Late-season acquisition Marlon Byrd led off the second inning with a home run, unleashing an eardrum-shattering celebration and a lusty serenade of “KWAY-toe.” Cueto was a veteran; he probably had heard worse (“If you’ve ever been to winter ball, that was quiet compared to the Dominican, where he’s from,” asserted his manager, Dusty Baker) but the aural assault seemed to shake him.2
One out later, with Russell Martin at the plate, Cueto inexplicably dropped the baseball while reading the signs from catcher Ryan Hanigan, which further incited the already rabid crowd. Pirate fans laughed and cheered derisively as Cueto hopped off the mound, picked up the ball, and stepped back on the rubber.
Then, on the very next pitch, Cueto served up a fat inside fastball, which Martin launched five rows into the left-center field bleachers for his third career postseason home run and a 2-0 Pirate lead. It was the game’s signature moment. “I think as the legend grows, it’ll be like the sound waves…grabbed the baseball out of his hand and made it drop and messed with his rhythm,” Martin joked. 3
The sing-song “KWAY-toe” taunt became the soundtrack for the evening. The bullied and battered right-hander never settled in and eventually departed after 3 1/3 innings, having allowed four runs on eight hits.
Liriano, meanwhile, was sailing along. He was perfect through three innings — on just 28 pitches — before stumbling in the fourth. Bruce’s two-out RBI single cut the lead to 3-1. With two on, Todd Frazier followed with a shot to left field that would have put Cincinnati on top and dramatically altered the course of the game, but the long drive bent just a few feet foul and the Pittsburgh faithful exhaled.
Liriano gathered himself to strike out Frazier swinging and snuff out the Reds’ last real chance to claw back into the game. Despite a nasty sinus infection and sore throat, Liriano surrendered just four hits and a walk in seven masterful innings before turning it over to the bullpen. The feared trio of Votto, Bruce, and Choo went 1-for-8 against him with four strikeouts.
The Bucs tacked on two insurance runs in the fourth and then another in the seventh, as Martin blasted his second home run, this one off Logan Ondrusek. By this point the crowd was humming along on low voltage, just counting the outs and marking time until the end. Cincinnati tallied a run against Tony Watson in the eighth, but Jason Grilli closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth to send Pittsburgh to the NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cincinnati’s third playoff pratfall in four years was too much for general manager Walt Jocketty, who fired Baker three days later. Pittsburgh took the Cardinals to the brink before falling in five games to the eventual NL pennant winners.
Despite coming up short of their ultimate goal, the Pirates had begun to pull back the gray curtain of mediocrity that had separated the organization from its shining past. But no matter how many playoff games lie ahead, it will be nearly impossible to match the explosive, cathartic euphoria of that magical evening.
1 “Channel 11 talks to Pirates fan who jumps off Clemente Bridge after Pirates win,” WPXI.com, October 2, 2013 (accessed February 11, 2014).
3 Jeff Passan, “Pittsburgh delirium unravels Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto as Pirates get all-important Wild-Card win,” Yahoo.com, October 2, 2013 (accessed February 12, 2014).