For the first time since Barry Bonds was winning his second MVP award while manning left field at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pittsburgh Pirates are headed to the postseason.
Starling Marte hit a game-winning solo home run in the top of the ninth inning and first baseman Justin Morneau saved the game with a thrilling relay throw to home, as the Pirates ended their 21-year postseason drought Monday night with a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The win, which secured at least a National League wild card for Pittsburgh, was in typical nail-biting fashion for this Pirates team.
Closer Jason Grilli took over with one out already recorded in the ninth and quickly got himself into trouble. A one-out walk to Dioner Navarro brought up Nate Schierholtz, who grounded into a fielder's choice that allowed Ryan Sweeney to nearly play the hero with a single to right field.
Marlon Byrd bobbled the skipping ground ball in right field, leaving Andrew McCutchen to scoop it up and make a desperation throw to nab Schierholtz, who was flying toward home plate. Though McCutchen's throw was off-line with the plate, it landed perfectly to Justin Morneau near the center of the diamond for the relay. Morneau spun on a dime and hit Russell Martin with a perfect strike to get Schierholtz.
“Not too often is there going to be a play at home on that kind of ball,” Morneau said of the play, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I stay at first and try to keep (Sweeney) at first and drift toward the middle once I see something different happen. Then (I) saw it kick away. ... I go back to the instincts. Something told me to go there.”
"Any time a game ends at the plate, it's going to be exciting. It definitely was for me -- and rewarding," echoed Martin, via MLB.com.
And the celebration two decades in the making commenced. And none of it would have been possible without Marte's heroics in the top of the ninth.
Starting pitcher Charlie Morton went seven scoreless innings, striking out five and only allowing four baserunners (four hits, one walk). Morton's 1-0 lead evaporated, however, when Donnie Murphy's pinch-hit RBI single off setup man Mark Melancon scored Brian Bogusevic to knot it at 1-1. It was Melancon's third blown save in as many appearances.
With momentum in his team's favor, Cubs reliever Kevin Gregg started out the ninth by striking out Clint Barmes and Travis Snyder.
But after working Gregg to a 2-1 count, Marte got a hanger and hit his 12th home run of the season over the left field fence.
Pittsburgh's win officially eliminates the surging Washington Nationals, who lost Monday night, from contention.
The path back to relevancy has been a long, arduous road in Pittsburgh. A city, accustomed to greatness with its beloved Steelers, watched on as the Pirates were in a state of cellar-dwelling inertia. The team failed to even touch the .500 mark over these past 21 years, peaking out with last season's 79-83 record.
In 2013, though, the narrative changed. Led by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk Monday night, the Pirates started out strong for the second straight season—only they didn't fade this time around.
Although the odds are against it, Pittsburgh still has a shot at winning the NL Central as well. The St. Louis Cardinals hold a two-game lead over the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, who also clinched a playoff berth Monday night with a walk-off win against the New York Mets in extra innings.
Odds are that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will face each other in the one-game, wild-card playoff. The teams just finished up a three-game series on Sunday, with the Reds winning two out of three at PNC Park, and will close out the season against one another with three more games at Great American Ballpark.
The Pirates and Reds have split their season series 8-8 thus far.
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