Pirates let opportunity slip away

PITTSBURGH – The Pirates couldn’t finish the deal at home, and in the postseason, that usually means big trouble.

Now they’ve got to go back to the best baseball city in the country and beat one of the game’s best pitchers, two days after nearly getting no-hit by a sensational rookie.

Those are long odds.

But hey, few teams in sports history have overcome the odds like this year’s Buccos, so why not face another incredibly difficult challenge trying to prove themselves yet again?

“Just show up and just relax and just play like it’s a normal game,” Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said of Wednesday’s Game 5 in the National League Division Series.

St. Louis will play host to that game, all because Monday the Cardinals did what winners do.

They ignored the surroundings before another raucous PNC Park crowd, got a tremendous pitching performance by rookie Michael Wacha and made the most of one huge hit – a two-run homer by Matt Holliday – in a 2-1 vicotry.

That’s what playoff baseball is all about, usually anyway.

It’s not about hitting a bunch of home runs and outslugging the opposition. It’s about playing as close to perfect as possible because, on this stage, there’s a good chance the other team is going to turn in a superb performance.

Take, for instance, Charlie Morton. The Pirates starter had his outstanding sinker working Monday, kept getting groundball after groundball and was doing everything he could possibly do to help his team win.

And it still wasn’t good enough – because the 22-year-old phenom Wacha was flirting with history as he carried a no-hitter for 7 1/3 innings.

“You try to ignore it,” Morton said of Wacha’s no-no bid. “I was aware of it, obviously, I’m out there. Michael Wacha did a phenomenal job today, but that shouldn’t and didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing.”

That’s hard to believe. In a game where one hit could and ultimately did decide the outcome, Morton faced tremendous pressure to be better than he’s ever been. Even if he didn’t realize it, he was pitching against Wacha’s brilliance every bit as much as he was against the Cardinals’ hitters.

The same will be true for Gerrit Cole when he takes the mound for the Pirates on Wednesday against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.

Cole, who didn’t speak to the media after Monday’s game, certainly knows he will have to turn in a tremendous performance because Wainwright likely will do so himself. There could be no margin for error for Cole, and for a competitor like him, that’s something he will relish.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle waited until after Monday’s game to announce that Cole will start instead of A.J. Burnett, who got clobbered for seven runs in one inning in Game 1 at St. Louis. Hurdle really had no choice in this situation because had he gone back to Burnett and the Bucs lost Game 5, it would have been considered gross incompetence by Pirates fans.

One of the best attributes of this Pirates team – perhaps its very best attribute – has been an uncanny ability to shake off disappointing losses or even mini-losing streaks by bouncing right back to win several games in a row.

Despite failing to win the series at home and looking bad offensively all day, don’t be surprised if the team puts what happened Monday completely in the rearview mirror by the time Wednesday rolls around. As closer Jason Grilli said, the club’s confidence right now is “no different than any of these other” times they’ve faced adversity.

“You’ve just got to keep your composure,” Grilli said. “The highs are the highs, the lows are the lows. Staying in the middle is where you try to just keep right there, and this team has done that all year long.”

Now they’ll have to do it once more, even after getting one-hit and disappointing the home crowd that would have loved to celebrate along with the team Monday.

One thing that’s in the Pirates’ favor is they were just in this situation a week ago, facing a one-game, do-or-die situation against the Reds in the wild-card game.

“You can almost treat (Game 5) like the wild-card game, look at it like that,” McCutchen said. “Go in there, know it’s do or die and know we’ve got to win.”

season on the line Wednesday in St. Louis.

Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror is covering the Pirates in the playoffs for Ogden Newspapers. Follow his live in-game updates on Twitter @CoryGiger.