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On Sunday afternoon, under a brutally hot sun, the Pirates entered the bottom of a 10th inning tie with division foe St. Louis, down 2-0 in the series.
It was a do-or-die type game with the understanding that a sweep could break the back of what has been an unexpected and impressive run for the Bucs so far this season.
After Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte got his first out of the frame, Xavier Paul stepped into the batter’s box. Paul had been brought in as a defensive substitute in the top of the ninth and made two catches in the top of the 10th.
After hitting a hard ground ball up the first-base line, Paul beat out Motte to the bag and Albert Pujols’ throw was just a split second too late. It was a junk-ball single, but a perfect metaphor for both Paul and the Pirates play.
“He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” pitcher Charlie Morton told Pirates.com later. “He’ll be the first one to tell you that he just did the right thing and it paid off. These guys will bust it out of the box and play the game right.”
On Motte’s first pitch, Paul took off for second with Chase d’ Arnaud at the plate. On an errant throw from catcher Gerald Laird, the crowd rose to their feet, and thousands of people helped third base coach Nick Leyvawave Paul into third.
It was one of those moments in sports where you just knew what was coming. Motte knew what was coming, d’ Arnaud knew what was coming and all the fans knew what was coming.
On the next pitch, d’ Arnaud swung for the fences and although he didn’t come close, he got the job done. It was a shot to shallow center, Paul tagged up and took off to beat the throw home by a healthy margin, and the Pirates had suddenly salvaged the series and pulled themselves back into a tie for first.
The fireworks that ensued symbolized more than just a walk-off win, but also a gritty showing by a team that had to overcome three deficits to even make it to the 10th inning. As a fan, it was tough not to love what you saw inside PNC Park Sunday.
The most important thing is that the win seemed to bring momentum down to Atlanta – where the Pirates took game one of their series with the Braves last night.
Atlanta represents not just a formidable opponent, but the beginning of a seven-game stretch that will give all of baseball a chance to put the Bucs winning ways on trial. If they can come out better than unscathed, it might be the tipping point on their legitimacy.
Either way, they got off on the right foot last night. Behind a career high nine strikeouts from James McDonald and another strong showing from the Pirates consistent bullpen, the Braves (59-44) fell 3-1 in front of 30,098 fans at Turner Field.
McDonald’s value keeps going up, and the Pirates have now won seven of his last eight starts. The numbers are there for closer Chris Resop this season too, who has now taken on a Major League-high 48 runners this season.
Of those 48 runners, Resop has left all but 15 of them on base. His success last night was a bit extra special, too.
“There was a lot going o through my head tonight, obviously with Atlanta being my last team,” said Resop, who joined was let go by the Braves last August. “I guess I was a little more pumped up than normal going against Atlanta. But again, you’re trying to focus on the hitter and getting one hitter out at a time to try and minimize the damage in that situation.”
As the Cardinals and Pirates stayed even, the Brewers night off dropped them a half game back out of first.
Tonight, Jeff Karstens will start against righty Tommy Hanson in what could be a preview of some October baseball. Although Karstens lost his last game, he did have a five-game winning streak up to that point and another strong showing tonight would reaffirm him as one of the hottest pitchers around.