AT 30,000 FEET, ON LITTLE SLEEP, EN ROUTE TO ST. LOUIS – I heard similar thoughts and expressions last night from a host of different people, from different walks of life, who shared one common experience: they had attended a number of major league baseball games.
What they said: “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett had played in postseason games in New York. They said they had never heard anything like it.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has been in the game since the 1970s. He never heard anything quite like it. “I think everyone who was here tonight will remember this for a long, long time,” Hurdle said.
I spoke to one veteran journalist who had attended Pirates games in Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium, and PNC Park. He said he had never heard such a decibel level.
Growing up in Cleveland, I attended several postseason games and a 1995 World Series game. I’ve covered ACC basketball games in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and SEC-ACC football clashes in the Georgia Dome. Those were all ear-drum threatening, raucous atmospheres. But Tuesday night’s PNC Park crowd was at least an equal in energy and enthusiasm. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a baseball crowd quite like it.
Tuesday night’s PNC Park crowd made a difference. The crowd, waiting 21 years for that moment, might have made all the difference.
What if it was Francisco Liriano on the road — where he had a 4.32 ERA vs. his 1.47 home mark — and not Johnny Cueto?
Last week I wrote about how, home-field advantage was a real thing. I wrote about how the Reds and Pirates final regular season series had significance because home field was at stake. I cited statistical studies showing how the root of home-field advantage is tied to crowds influencing umpire and official’s on-field calls. But we saw Tuesday how a really, really great home crowd can also have a significant, tangible impact on players.
Before Tuesday’s game Dusty Baker said Johnny Cueto thrived in such environments. But when the PNC Park crowd began chanting “Cue-to … Cue-to” in the second inning, he dropped a routine toss back from catcher Ryan Hanigan. Moments later he coughed up a home run to Marlon Byrd which sent the place into frenzy, 40,000 jumping up and down at once, testing the structural integrity of the building. The press box shook.
Cueto looked rattled. I mean, really, who wouldn’t be? That’s not a normal postseason baseball crowd. Cueto had looked pretty good in his two starts back from the DL but he left everything up Tuesday and was out of the game before completing four innings.
Home-field matters but it wasn’t the only deciding factor.
Liriano, pitching through a sinus infection (His Michael Jordan-playing-through-the-flu moment?), and Russell Martin also played significant roles. And it seemed poetic justice that they did so since those two acquisitions, more than anything, changed the Pirates from a losing team to an NLDS-bound one in 2013.
Liriano took advantage of those lefty-on-lefty matchups and neutralized Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo with a wipeout slider (of the 12 sliders he threw to lefties, eight were swing and missed at). Martin has been a critical defensive addition to the club but his bat had quieted until Tuesday.
The two players were guaranteed only $8 million in 2013. They produced 7.2 WAR ($30 million value) in the regular season. Martin and Liriano – and a rare crowd – were the three biggest reasons why we will meet the Pirates in St. Louis.
PROJECTING THE NLDS PITCHING MATCHUPS
Tuesday night was great to watch as an objective observer, but here’s the thing. The St. Louis-Pittsburgh NLDS has a chance to be even better.
The Pirates just took the regular season series 10 games to nine. Along with the Dodgers, the Pirates and Cardinals have two of the best three pitching staffs in the National League.
A.J. Burnett vs. Adam Wainwright
This matchup is already locked in. Wainwright will finish in the top 5 of Cy Young voting but he’s cooled off some in the second half. Burnett is coming off one of his best outings.
Gerrit Cole vs. Lance Lynn
Lance Lynn is listed as the probable starter for St. Louis but I am projecting Cole in this spot because he is well rested. A key development is the Pirates didn’t need to use Cole over the weekend or Tuesday against Cincinnati.
Francisco Liriano vs. Shelby Miller
Liriano would be on regular rest for this start, which is the last guaranteed game of the series. Liriano is 3-0 with a 2.24 ERA vs. the Cardinals this season and has been a more effective pitcher at home. Also, one of the Cardinals’ best RHH, Allen Craig, is out of the series due to injury.
GAME 4 – if necessary
Charlie Morton vs. Joe Kelly
The Pirates and Cardinals don’t need to employ four-man rotations because of the off-day. But Hurdle indicated he’d prefer to keep his starters on regular rest.
GAME 5 – if necessary
Burnett vs. Wainwright II
This is going to be fun. Enjoy it folks.