Tuesday night the Pirates won the NL wild card game to move on to the NLDS against the Cardinals. It’s their first time in the playoffs since 1992 – 20 straight losing seasons. As a Royals fan, I know (almost) exactly how that feels.
In 1992, the Braves were up 3 games to 1 when the Pirates stormed back to force a game 7. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th, two outs and the pitchers spot coming up, Braves manager Bobby Cox pinch hit with Francisco Cabrera. Cabrera had only 10 plate appearances all season, three of them hits.
Pirates fans will tell you that they shouldn’t have even been in this position. Whoever it was the was two batters prior, had just walked, two of the pitches seemingly strikes but called balls instead. The next batter hit a cute little flare behind second base which was caught with no advancing runners. It would’ve been the third out, Pirates fans will argue.
Francisco Cabrera at the plate. “The unlikeliest of heroes,” Tim McCarver kept saying on the broadcast. McCarver clearly had no faith that Cabrera would do anything of value in this position. After Cabrera took the first pitch – a ball – McCarver began droning on about how if the count goes to 2-0, Cabrera should just keep taking becuase it was more likely that he would walk in the tying run than actually get a hit.
But when the count went to 2-0, Francisco Cabrera, the unlikeliest of heroes, had the green light. the next pitch was right down the pipe and Cabrera turned on it and the ball caught the meat of the bat. A frozen rope down the third base line that would easily plate David Justice from third base if it wasn’t caught.
But it hooked foul. The Pirates had dodged a major bullet. Cabrera had just missed his moment as a NLCS hero – had he just waited a fraction of a second longer to swing, that ball was over Barry Bonds’ head in LF and off the wall, plating two. Game over.
But instead it’s a 2-1 count. And Cabrera, after swearing to himself a bit at the plate, digs in for the fourth pitch of the at bat. And this time he isn’t in front of it at all.
Cabrera laces a single in front and to the left of a charging Barry Bonds. Just moments earlier, Andy Van Slyke had told Bonds to scoot in a little bit. Bonds flipped Van Slyke the bird in return. David Justice scored easily, but the winning run had just rounded third and was bolting for home.
Whenever I watch a play at the plate, it seems like it’s happening in slow motion. The runner has a huge head start, but it doesn’t matter when the ball is traveling at 80 mph while the runner is pushing 12 mph. The ball gets there quickly, and the baserunner ends up looking surprisingly slow no matter if it’s Billy Butler or Billy Hamilton rounding third.
In this instance it was Sid Bream, the Pirates old first baseman who was in his second year with the Braves. Bream, wearing number twelve and a Magnum PI mustache, was a shockingly slow runner, and was still a few steps up the basepath when catcher Mike Lavilliere got the ball. But Bonds’ toss was a full reach toward first base – the product of having to field it to his left and throw across his body. Lavilliere picked it and spun back across his body to catch Bream’s foot sliding across the plate.
But it was too late. By a matter of inches, Bream’s foot had beat Lavilliere’s tag.
Braves win, 3-2.
David Justice mobbed Bream on top of home plate in what appeared to be a wrestling move of some sort just before the rest of the Braves team piled on top. The hero, Fransico Cabrera, is never even shown during the ensuing celebration. All the focus is on Bream, Justice and manager Bobby Cox.
Meanwhile, Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke is sitting on the grass with his cap down over his eyes. Heartbreak for Pittsburgh for the third consecutive year: 1990, 1991 and 1992 had all brought NL East regular season crowns. All three seasons had ended in NLCS losses, and this was the second consecutive Game 7 loss to these Atlanta Braves. The World Series had eluded the Pirates again, and suddenly the future wasn’t looking very bright.
That errant throw was Barry Bonds’ last time touching the ball in a Pirates uniform. He would sign with the Giants next season. Starting pitcher Don Drabek, who had pitched in three different games in the NLCS – all of them against John Smoltz – wouldn’t be back either. 1993 would bring the first of 20 consecutive losing seasons.
Fast forward to 2013: the first Pirates winning season since that devistating string of NLCS losses. First postseason game since Barry Bonds’ airmail. Is there a redemptive storyline in the making? Due to the playoffs being expanded following the 1995 season, the Pirates have a tougher road then years past. They have to get through the NL Central winning St. Louis Cardinals** before they get a shot at another NLCS where they would meet the winner of the Dodgers and the – holy smokes could this storyline be happening? – Atlanta Braves. There’s a storyline for you.
Stay posted folks. This could (is guaranteed to) be really fun.
** – For the record, I will NOT be rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the St. Louis Cardinals. Just thought I’d make that clear. However, if the Pirates get past St. Louis, I’m pretty certain I’ll be cheering hard for the Bucs. Plus they have John Buck on their team now, so…