Pirates feeling the October passion

PITTSBURGH -- They've waited all their lives to play games like this. But how could the Pittsburgh Pirates have possibly known that this is what October would feel like?

Or, even more incredibly, that this is what October would sound like?

But now they know. Now they get it. Now they've seen it. Now they've heard it. They've felt the sonic boom that has rumbled out of the seats around them and shaken their world. They've stared into the eyes of people whose lives are changing.

"And it's amazing," Andrew McCutchen said on another remarkable day in the lives of the 2013 Pirates, "to be a part of it."

"I'm trying as hard as I can to soak it in," McCutchen said, after his team's dramatic 5-3 win Sunday over the Cardinals in Game 3 of their National League Division Series. "I go out there every single day before the game. I look at the crowd. And it's amazing."

When he gazes into those seats and sees the look on the faces of people in the throes of a love affair with a baseball team they never saw coming, it's a powerful sight, McCutchen said. And it's more, he believes, than just the standard old look of fans who are happy because their team is winning for a change.

"I see passion," he said, on the day his team took a 2-1 series lead. "I see the same thing that we have when we're out there on the field. I see fans hungry to see a winner, hungry to be a part of this. You know, it's not just us that are a part of this. It's the whole city. It's everyone here. They're all a part of this, because this is making memories. It's one of those things they're going to remember forever, as much as we are."

And now, if the Pirates can just win one more game, the dream ride won't end here, with the first division series in franchise history. There will be another series, another week of baseball, another opportunity for a team and its city to keep making those memories -- memories that last a lifetime.

But that dream was in danger Sunday -- in danger a couple of times, actually.

They watched a two-run lead disappear in the fifth inning and a one-run lead melt in the eighth. And so, for the first time in this postseason run, this team needed to dig a little deeper to find a way to win a pivotal October baseball game.

But you know something crazy is happening here when Pedro Alvarez -- a guy who went 8-for-39, with 24 strikeouts, against left-handed relievers this year -- steps up and slaps a go-ahead RBI single off a left-hander (Kevin Siegrist) who ground left-handed hitters into sawdust all summer (8-for-68, .118 against him).

And that actually happened, naturally. In real life. In the bottom of the eighth inning.

It was the first time all season Alvarez had driven in a game-tying or go-ahead run against a left-handed pitcher in the eighth inning or later. Hey, of course it was.

"That at-bat," second baseman Neil Walker said, "was huge."

But here's an even bigger development to contemplate: If you don't count the wild-card game, the Pirates now hold an official lead in a postseason series for the first time since they took a 3-2 edge back to Pittsburgh in the 1991 NLCS. (We won't discuss how that series turned out.)

And if the Pirates can beat the Cardinals one more time -- either Monday in Pittsburgh, where Charlie Morton will pitch against a Cardinals rookie (Michael Wacha) making his 10th major league start, or in Game 5 back in St. Louis on Wednesday -- the Pirates will win a postseason series for (shudder) the first time since they won the 1979 World Series.

So you wonder where all that noise is coming from, where all that passion is coming from? That pretty much explains it. Don't you think? These people have waited, literally, thousands of days for a moment like this -- and a team like this -- to arrive.

"I'm at the age -- I'm 28 years old -- where there are people I grew up with who never really remember seeing that team in '92 or the last winning season," said Walker, a guy whose take on all of this is shaped by having been born in Pittsburgh and spending his whole life as a Pirates fan. "So I've had a lot of people tell me, 'Thank you for helping to make my kid a baseball fan.' Kids and their dads are bonding over baseball again."

And for literally an entire generation, while more empty seats were witnessing Pirates baseball than living humans, those special bonds unraveled. But now they're back. And only a true Pittsburgher like Walker can understand what that means.

"Over the course of the last 20 years, when they've only had one winning season, I don't know how you could expect people to say, 'Oh, I'm a Pirates fan,'" he said with a laugh. "You might get beat up in other cities for that. But this is a sports town. This is a blue-collar sports town."

So no wonder this town has connected with this blue-collar baseball team -- a team with a $73 million payroll, a team full of men who are almost as unfamiliar with October baseball as the folks in the stands who are watching it.

Asked if life in October was everything he'd expected, McCutchen confessed: "I didn't know what to expect, because I never experienced it before. So all of it's foreign to me. But at the same time, it's amazing to be a part of it and to know that this is how it feels. It makes you hungry for more."

And they continue to play like a team that's hungry for more, riding that magic carpet, winning games in ways that defy all the conventional scripts. Games like Sunday's, for instance.

They won Sunday even though one of the best relievers in baseball, Mark Melancon, allowed the first home run the Cardinals had hit in PNC Park all year -- in their 351st at-bat -- and the first Melancon had allowed anywhere since April 14.

They won Sunday even though their starting pitcher, Francisco Liriano, gave up as many runs on one swing of the bat -- by Carlos Beltran, in the fifth inning -- as he'd allowed to the Cardinals all season (two).

They won Sunday even though Beltran had another storybook day at the postseason office, reaching base three more times, driving in three more runs and again passing Babe Ruth for the greatest postseason home run ratio of all time (16 in 136 at-bats, or one every 8.5 AB).

And they won Sunday by continuing to turn regular-season logic upside-down. The team that hit .229 this season with runners in scoring position (the Pirates) went 3-for-8 in those situations Sunday and is now 6-for-18 (.333) in the series -- while the team that set an all-time single-season record by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position (the Cardinals) went 1-for-5 in those spots Sunday and is now 3-for-20 (.150) in the series.

But with every game they win like this, as that lava flow of passion continues to pour out of the seats, it becomes more and more clear what is happening here.

Maybe this seemed, for a long time, like some cute little underdog fairy tale and not much more. But not now. Not with this team a game away from sending the mighty Cardinals home and reaching its first NLCS in more than two decades.

It would have been fair to wonder, a week ago, if the stage was too big for a group like this. But McCutchen couldn't help but smile Sunday and ask: "Is it too big still? I guess we don't think it is."

And every new day the Pirates get to play on that stage, it feels as if their audience grows. This is not just a Pittsburgh story anymore. Is it? It's a story with the potential to sweep through the American heartlands and pick up steam every day.

The Pirates don't even have the lowest payroll among the eight teams remaining in this postseason, you know. The A's are lower (at $71 million). So are the Rays (at $65.6 million). But there's something about the appeal of the Pirates that feels different, more compelling. This feels like America's Team waiting to happen. If it hasn't happened already.

"We're the new team," McCutchen said. "The Rays have been here. The Oakland A's were here last year. We're the new team. I guess you could say we're fresh meat. So everybody wants a piece. Everybody wants to get in. They want to see what the Pirates are all about."

Well, they're seeing it, all right. And if Sunday was any indication, this could be a long-running October feature. But for now, even as the love rains down on them from every direction, the Pirates are trying to keep the seas around them as calm as humanly possible.

"We just want to keep the sail up on the boat," said Andrew McCutchen, "and keep coasting."