PITTSBURGH — Andrew McCutchen could get used to the Pittsburgh Pirates being the toast of baseball. Then again, at the moment he doesn’t really have a choice.
“You could say we’re fresh meat, everybody wants a piece,” McCutchen said. “Everybody wants to get in. They want to see what the Pirates are all about.”
Pittsburgh provided a glimpse on Sunday, scoring twice in the bottom of the eighth to take the lead for good in a 5-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals that staked the resilient Pirates to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five NL division series.
Charlie Morton is set to start for Pittsburgh in Game 4 on Monday against rookie Michael Wacha. A Pittsburgh victory would send a franchise that’s been a laughingstock for the better part of 20 years into the NL championship series.
And one that’s proven it can take a punch. St. Louis slapped around the Pirates in Game 1, pounding ace A.J. Burnett in a 9-1 romp. Two straight Pittsburgh wins have followed, games in which the Pirates never trailed.
St. Louis rallied twice on Sunday, tying it at 3-all on the 16th postseason home run of Carlos Beltran’s career, a solo shot off reliever Mark Melancon (1-0) to quiet a crowd that spent the better part of three hours on its feet.
They didn’t stay silent for long.
McCutchen led off the eighth with his second hit, a double to left off Carlos Martinez (0-1). But the NL MVP candidate unwisely tried to advance on Justin Morneau’s grounder to shortstop and was an easy out at third.
Harrison ran for Morneau and moved up when Marlon Byrd walked. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny turned to a lefty in Kevin Siegrist to face the left-handed Alvarez. The Pittsburgh slugger tied for the NL lead with 36 homers during the regular season, but hit just .180 against lefties.
“I just knew it was going to be a tough matchup,” Alvarez said. “I’ve seen him a couple of times before. I haven’t had much success. He’s a pitcher with good stuff — great stuff. He threw me a couple of fastballs out over the plate.”
One too many, as it turned out, and Alvarez singled between first and second. Martin then fouled off a squeeze bunt before lining a hit to left that gave Grilli more than enough cushion.
“The confidence level is high,” Martin said. “And the stakes couldn’t be any higher. We’re having fun playing the game and going out there and competing.”
The Cardinals came into the series with a heavy edge in postseason experience. The NL Central champions will need to rely on it if they want to send the series back to Busch Stadium for Game 5 on Wednesday.
“We’ve been in this situation,” Beltran said. “Last year, I think we were in this situation a lot. So I think we’re fine, man. We want to come here tomorrow, we want to win and hopefully take this series home.”
The game was a rare nail-biter between two clubs that spent the summer shadowing each other in the race for the NL Central title. Coming into Sunday, only five of the previous 21 matchups between the two were decided by two runs or fewer.
After blowouts by each club in St. Louis, there wasn’t much room to breathe in front of a frenzied, black-clad crowd looking for a repeat of Pittsburgh’s giddy 6-2 romp over Cincinnati in the wild-card game last Tuesday.
Martin’s sacrifice fly off reliever Seth Maness in the sixth gave the Pirates a 3-2 lead and turned the game over to Pittsburgh’s “Shark Tank” bullpen, one of the keys to the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth in a generation.
Tony Watson worked around a one-out single in the seventh before giving way to Melancon in the eighth. The reliever helped keep the Pirates in contention when Grilli went to the disabled list with a strained right forearm in July. He struggled down the stretch, however, and when Beltran sent a ball well into the seats in right-center it marked the fourth time Melancon had surrendered the lead in the last three weeks.
No matter, the Pirates rebounded. It’s what they’ve done all season. Giddy at the thought of moving on, they’re also wary of the Cardinals. If they can’t clinch it on Monday, a trip back to St. Louis to face Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright looms.
It’s a trip they’d rather not take.
“We’ve love a chance to close it out at home,” McCutchen said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”