Pedro Alvarez is often seen as the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest boom-or-bust player, a guy who could hit them back into a game or strike them out of one.
On Sunday evening, Alvarez reminded everyone how good he can be when it's the former.
The Pirates third baseman hit a go-ahead RBI single in the eighth inning, Russell Martin added an insurance run one batter later and Jason Grilli closed out the game in the ninth, as Pittsburgh defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 before a raucous crowd at PNC Park.
Alvarez's and Martin's hits came with one out off of St. Louis reliever Kevin Siegrist, who relieved pitcher of record Carlos Martinez. Grilli closed it out in the ninth by allowing a leadoff single and then retiring three consecutive batters, giving Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
The Pirates will have a chance to close out the series on Monday when Charlie Morton takes the mound at PNC Park. Michael Wacha is scheduled to go for the Cardinals.
While Alvarez and Martin proved heroes on Sunday evening, critical mistakes from two notable teammates nearly cost them the game.
After hitting a double to lead off the eighth inning, Andrew McCutchen was standing on second when first baseman Justin Morneau hit a ground ball to Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma. Rather than waiting for Kozma to make the play at first, however, McCutchen took off instantly for third base, at which point he was astutely gunned down for an easy out.
That came just a half-inning after setup man Mark Melancon blew the Pirates' 3-2 lead by allowing a solo home run to Carlos Beltran in the top of the frame. It was Melancon's fourth blown save in his last six appearances dating back to the regular season. After giving up six runs the entire season heading into September, he's now given up nine in the past month plus.
Beltran's home run was his second of the postseason, and it cost Pirates starter Francisco Liriano his second win of the 2013 playoffs. Beltran passed Babe Ruth for eighth on the all-time postseason home run list with 16.
Liriano wasn't as spectacular as he was during the Pirates' win over the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card Round, but he worked through control issues to turn in six solid innings. He gave up two runs over three hits and two walks, with a two-RBI single from Beltran being his only major blemish.
Liriano had an 8-1 record with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts at home during the regular season. He's now given up only three runs in 13 innings at PNC Park in the postseason after having made just one October start in his eight previous big league seasons.
After out-performing Johnny Cueto against Cincinnati, Liriano again got the better of a division foe, this time Cardinals starter Joe Kelly.
Making his first career postseason start (eighth appearance), Kelly's nerves were on display early. After recording outs on the first two batters he faced, the Cardinals righty began struggling with control, walking McCutchen. Both runners moved into scoring position when Justin Morneau hit an infield single after an errant throw from Kozma.
Marlon Byrd then roped a single to left field, sending McCutchen and Morneau home and giving the Pirates a 2-0 lead as the PNC Park crowd attempted to rattle the youngster.
Kelly quickly settled down. He got out of the first and then allowed only one Pirates baserunner to reach scoring position over the next four innings.
That all changed in the bottom of the sixth. Kelly walked McCutchen for a second time to start the inning, allowed Byrd to bat him into scoring position with a one-out double and then ceded to the Cardinals bullpen after intentionally walking Alvarez.
Seth Maness came in to relieve Kelly with one out and the bases loaded, and while he recorded two outs in five pitches, one of those was a Russell Martin sacrifice fly that brought in McCutchen to give the Pirates their 3-2 lead.
Although it didn't prove to be the game-winning run, that sac fly proved critical in giving Grilli an extra run to play with. After losing Game 1 by eight runs, the Pirates have now outscored St. Louis 12-4 over the past 18 innings of this series.
With another game in less than 24 hours, the Pirates have all the momentum and home-field advantage. If there was any setting to advance to your first NLCS in more than two decades, this would probably be it.
Player of the Game: Pedro Alvarez (3B, Pittsburgh Pirates)
Sunday evening was a perfect display of who Alvarez is as a hitter. His first three plate appearances saw him walk once and strike out twice, though neither of those whiffs came at an especially important time in the game.
Alvarez's single, however, came when his team needed it most. Beltran's homer in the eighth sucked the life out of the crowd momentarily, and McCutchen taking himself out of scoring position created almost a sense of inevitability. Alvarez stopped all that talk with one swing of the bat, giving him four straight games with an RBI to start his postseason career.
There were definitely players whose overall performances were greater than Alvarez's. Notwithstanding his baserunning error, McCutchen reached base all four times he stepped to the plate and scored two runs. Martin had the first go-ahead RBI and then tacked on another right after his teammate. Even Byrd, whose performance will go forgotten in all of this hoopla, had an excellent day in the box.
But only one drove home the game-winning run.
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