Wednesday, October 2, 2013

For One Night Only, pt. 1: The Steel City Blackout and the Forsaking of the Cincinnati Reds

It ended as it had begun- loud. The more than forty-thousand in attendance at PNC Park would not relent their cries from first pitch to the final out. It had been twenty-one years since the Pittsburgh Pirates won a playoff game. On the arm of a journeyman with a seemingly-possessed slider, the packed house on the Allegheny River, nearly all clad in black, set the stage for a moment more than two decades in the making. The drama never climaxed past the fourth inning, but in the end the game had presented itself as another brilliantly crafted page of prose in an already classic tale of redemption.

It was as if the on-high looked down and smote the Cincinnati Reds. Few things terrestrial could explain the outright curse laid upon the visiting team tonight. A sea of black covered the stands in Pittsburgh. Each soul within was a weapon, armed and dangerous. At its epicenter stood their chief target of ridicule- Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto. Visibly showing the strain of local disaffection, Cueto only stoked the wildfire by actually dropping the baseball between pitches. Within moments, the game was lost for Cincy. In a winner-take-all one game wild card playoff game, there is no room for error. Yet that is all the Reds could manage. By the time they scored their second run, the Pirates already had six.

Francisco Liriano blew through the lineup once. Nine up, nine down. Twent-Eight pitches. For a moment I wondered if I would see any Reds on base at all. Liriano already has a no-hitter in his career, and given the way this season has gone for the Pirates, a perfect game in the playoffs wasn't too far-fetched. His slider was so effective that he seemed to pitch freely the whole night, never bowing to respect any hitter in a typically deadly Reds lineup. As the roar grew louder, Liriano became stronger. He seemed to pull from the wall of sound as much as Cueto suffered from it in unbreakable shame. It felt almost preordained. Like perhaps we were merely watching a coronation of a new National League power and the team that was supposed to assume the throne could only watch and await their timely demise.

Two home runs from catcher Russell Martin led the way. For the laundry list of two-syllable name pitchers Dusty Baker sent to the slaughter tonight, the crowd simply chanted the name in a taunt easily mistaken for a jet taking off inside his ear. This pattern only broke when Martin came to bat. He quickly repaid the Pirate faithful's adoration with his second homer, the final nail in the coffin for the Reds. The first score of the night came from Marlon Byrd. He had waited a long time to make the postseason- 1,250 games to be exact. To quickly take the storybook evening from serene to sublime, Byrd returned a Johnny Cueto pitch just over the left field fence. If waiting a long time is something the Pirates do well, Marlon Byrd is the team's longsufferer-in-residence. Yet much like his team did tonight, Byrd seemed to flawlessly pen a surreal narrative.

Now the Pirates face another divisional rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the best-of-five divisional round. With a stacked batting order and an arsenal of quality pitching, the Pirates are well armed to eliminate any perceived advantage the Cardinals have from getting a few days off. Yet if there is one thing St. Louis does rather well, it's winning in October. For now, the Pirates and their motley crew of rowdy fanatics can hold their heads high. Their first playoff win since 1992 is in the books. Now the task becomes something greater.

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