Pirates Veterans the Driving Force in Crucial Game 3 Win over Cardinals
As we focus most of our attention on Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, it is important to remember the work that the Pittsburgh Pirates have done to build around those middle-of-the-order players this postseason.
If you don't believe me, all you have to do is look at the work done by the likes of Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin in the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Pirates are one game away from the NLCS for the first time since 1992, when Atlanta's Sid Bream crossed the plate and sent this franchise into a 20-year exile.
Game 3 of the NLDS was a tense back-and-forth affair, which you would expect from two teams who have played each other 22 times this season. But the performances of the 36-year-old Byrd and 30-year-old Martin set the tone.
That is not to take away from what Alvarez, who came into the game hitting a paltry .180/.252/.286 against left-handed pitching, did by getting the go-ahead RBI in the bottom of the eighth inning off southpaw Kevin Siegrist.
For all the great things McCutchen can do on a baseball field, he made what could have been a huge blunder in that decisive eighth inning. He started with a double that set things up nicely, but for some reason, tried to take third base on a hard hit grounder right at shortstop Pete Kozma and got thrown out.
It was only because of a Carlos Martinez walk to Byrd that the Pirates were set up to score again in the inning. Josh Harrison ran for Morneau after McCutchen's blunder, then scored on the Alvarez single.
The Pirates added another run on a Martin single to lock up the 5-3 victory and give them a chance to clinch on Monday afternoon in front of a raucous hometown crowd.
Which veteran pickup has had the most impact for the Pirates?
But this game is also a microcosm of why the Pirates have been so successful this season. They didn't make any major moves, at least from a marquee standpoint, in the winter or before the trade deadline.
Yet general manager Neal Huntington knew exactly what his team needed. Martin spent the previous two seasons playing for the New York Yankees and wasn't hitting enough to keep a starting job (.224/.317/.405 in 961 plate appearances).
Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk noted recently that Martin and the Yankees had actually discussed a three-year contract after the 2011 season, but he wanted more money than they were comfortable committing.
After a successful first year in pinstripes in 2011, Martin and the Yankees discussed a three-year deal without ever getting anything done. He avoided arbitration for the 2012 season by signing a one-year, $7.5 million deal, but he wanted more than that annually to do the long-term pact. The Yankees were thinking something closer to $20 million for three years.
Martin didn't suddenly revert back to being the hitter he was in his early days with Los Angeles after signing with the Pirates, posting just a .226/.327/.377 line in 506 plate appearances.
But with the spotlight not shining quite as bright on him away from the insanity of New York, you could appreciate the all-around skills that Martin brings to the team. His 15 homers were third-most among NL catchers with at least 500 plate appearances.
Fangraphs had Martin rated as the best defensive catcher in baseball this season, even ahead of his counterpart in this series, Yadier Molina.
Going back to Huntington for a moment, it's time he gets more praise for the job he has done. His staff put together what could have been a team with one superstar (McCutchen) and a lot of spare parts, cast-offs and has-beens only to get the absolute best from the likes of Martin, Byrd, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon.
Meanwhile, Byrd was a non-entity coming into this season. He was a 35-year-old coming off a disastrous 2012 that saw him hit .210/.243/.245 in 47 games split between Chicago and Boston. He was also suspended for 50 games after failing a performance-enhancing drug test.
The only team that gave Byrd a chance to play this season was the New York Mets, who signed him to a minor-league deal. As Anthony DiComo of MLB.com noted, the outfielder wasn't competing for a starting spot but buried down on the roster.
#Mets have signed Marlon Byrd to a minor league contract with a spring invite. He'll compete with Andrew Brown for that fifth OF spot.— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 2, 2013
And that's only if Byrd made the team out of spring training. The Mets were desperate for outfield help this season. Their two highest-paid players at the position were Jason Bay, who was released last year, and Bobby Bonilla, who retired in 2001.
Byrd wound up being a pleasant surprise in New York with a .285/.330/.518 slash line with 26 doubles and 21 home runs in 117 games.
The Pirates were searching for more offense, especially from a corner outfielder, so they acquired Byrd and catcher John Buck just four days before the end of the waiver trade period on August 27.
What's more important is the Pirates didn't have to sell any notable prospects for their future to get Byrd from New York.
Oh yeah, Liriano also continued his career renaissance in this game. Already in his eighth year, the 29-year-old went six innings and allowed just two runs on three hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
It wasn't a dominating effort for Liriano, who did labor a few times and needed 101 pitches to get through six innings. But that bend-but-don't-break showing kept the Pirates in the game and set them up to win in the later innings.
Liriano's career hit the skids long before arriving in Pittsburgh. He had consecutive seasons with an ERA over 5.00 in 2011 and 2012, allowed 268 hits and 162 walks in 291 innings with Minnesota and Chicago.
He was supposed to sign with Pittsburgh around Christmas last year, but broke his arm reportedly playing with his kids and had to wait a few extra weeks to finalize a less-favorable contract.
Francisco Liriano said he broke his arm when he slammed it against a door, trying to startle his kids Christmas Day. #Pirates— Michael Sanserino (@msanserino) February 11, 2013
That injury forced the Pirates to take their guaranteed two-year, $12.75 million deal off the table in exchange for a one-year, incentive-laden contract that could turn into the original deal if he met certain requirements, according to Tom Singer of MLB.com.
Now, months after Martin, Byrd and Liriano were all but forgotten entities in the baseball world, they are shining on the biggest stage Major League Baseball has to offer.
Even better is that their performance isn't limited to just one game. Martin hit two home runs in the Wild Card game against Cincinnati, while Byrd also hit a homer in that game to open the scoring.
Game 3 of the NLDS was just another reminder of why this Pirates team is much more than just a fun story that doesn't have any legs in the postseason. They can pitch with anyone in baseball, AL or NL, and have a lot more power than you might think.
So, even with McCutchen serving as the face of the franchise and the biggest potential breakout star this October, especially with seven hits through just four games, it is important to remember that the Pirates also have a few names you might have heard of in the past playing well at just the right time.
When you have a team firing on all cylinders like the Pirates are right now, it is no surprise that they are one win away from playing in the NLCS.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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