TOP OF THE ELEVENTH: Pirates 5 – 5 Cardinals
It’s 40 degrees at first pitch in Pittsburgh, and in the frozen late-night wasteland of the 11th inning it’s becoming too cold to mention, as Brandon Moss strides up to bat for the Cardinals. Probably not much of a bunt base-hit threat with a name like that, “Moss.” Up there with Rock and Stone for least mobile, most inert literal surnames—but I can’t rule out there being a So-and-so Sloth out there somewhere.
Moss goes down swinging. Looking uncomfortably cold.
Back in the days of little to no interleague play, you always had the N.L. Central teams matched up against each other to open the season, typically on bitter cold afternoons when the division first got a look at how the year might shake out. This year, though, you get the Reds against Phillies, Brewers against Giants, the Cubs all the way out in Anaheim playing American League ball, and the Astros—still sounds weird to say this—in the A.L. West, up against the Yankees.
So this is it, Pirates vs. Cardinals, filling the void of traditional, rivalrous Opening Week as I have always known it.
On the field, at the plate is Jedd Gyorko, pronounced “Jerk-Oh,” who came over to the Cardinals in an odd trade for Jon Jay this offseason.
stein gets behind 3-0 in the count. He puts pitch number four in the zone, and Gyorko smacks a single into left field, standing proud and tall on first base, a silver chain dangling from his neck, his top button unclasped, sure he’s getting set up to score the winning run.
Sean Rodriguez is manning first base, keeping Gyorko from a big lead.
I can’t help but wonder how his offseason turned out—whether he had to apologize to the team and/or the Gatorade tank directly for his all-out assault last year in the N.L. Wild Card game, after the Cubs took an early lead and…the water cooler…was…mouthing off too much in S-Rod’s ear?
And looking at Rodriguez’ headband-headwrap-skullcap number, might the Pirates have the highest number of players resembling their own team name than any other squad? You’ve got Rodriguez, and the hard-nosed, bearded grit of Josh Harrison—then Francisco Cervelli as the ship captain. Even Starling Marte has a bit of swashbuckling swagger to him, and Gerrit Cole has the scruffy beard/hair combo that just might be enough get him in as an extra on the newest “Pirates” movie.
It’s a bit hard for a major-league ballplayer to look anything like a Cub, White Sock or “Red,” though, so the only other teams in the running here are the Twins, Giants, Athletics (whatever that would look like), and… Mets? Mariners? Angels? Yankees? I vote Pirates for first place, Mets a distant second—because how much more “metropolitan” can you get than Matt Harvey and that gelled hair and stony-faced stare?
Matt Adams comes up now, a top candidate for the league’s most intimidating batting stance—a huge frame like an offensive lineman, very long bat, a solid history of monster home runs.
He strikes out looking, a fastball on the outside corner from Lobstein.
Trying to survive yet another inning in the cold quagmire of Pittsburgh April, Kolten Wong now walks up to the plate, getting settled in his patented rigid crouch, like he’s about to pounce up to the ball rather than swing through it.
Wong cuts away at a few fouls, with a very strong, quick follow-through after the swing, like he’s still out to impress an old coach who taught him all the baseball fundamentals.
1-2 count to Wong, Gyorko still on first. Another foul.
At this point the stadium is empty enough to clearly hear the echoing late-night bro-cheers braying out from around the stadium, a rowdy buffet of “Woooo!”s and “Atta boy!!”s echoing off the empty plastic seats and into the broadcast mics. I feel like Kanye circa “College Dropout”: I feel some woo’s comin’ on, cuz!
Called third strike on Kolten Wong. Half-inning over.
We move to the 11th, Pirates coming up.
The collective mittens of the dwindling fanbase smack together in applause as the side trots back to the dugout, with every fan still there too proud to leave their team early, praying for an ending, a warm breeze, a win, maybe even a loss if it’s quick.
BOTTOM OF THE ELEVENTH: Pirates 6 – 5 Cardinals
The break lasts about 10 seconds, and we’re back, with Seth Maness on the mound—another interesting name, masculine yet feminine. Nice.
Francisco Cervelli comes up and grounds out to third straight away, looking like a long night. Fans getting worried.
Here comes Gregory Polanco.
How tall is this guy? Baseball Reference says 6’5”, looks even taller. Up there with Derrek Lee, Jason Heyward, a few others.
Another “Woooo!!” gets beamed in HD-audio from somewhere in the upper deck.
Josh Harrison comes up now, who just looks like an absolute beast with the bearded James Harden look, the tall striped socks, long black sleeves, pine tar on the helmet.
And here, the play before the play of the game.
Harrison rips a sharp bouncer up the middle, Gyorko hustles over and snags it, sliding through the dirt behind second base, the predicted double-play all but made—and we get a bobble!
Something got mixed up in the exchange in the glove, and he flings the ball directly out of the leather toward Wong, who picks it up from a tepid roll on the dirt, but just a split-second too late as Polanco slides hard into the bag, the ump calling him safe.
Upon checking—and repeating and repeating—the replay, we play captive audience to the ump spreading his arms in an emphatic You’re Safe!! Gesture, like readying for a big baseball hug, and sending Gyorko, still laid out on the dirt, into a shameful posture with his head in his arms, defeated, still not sure if he can become a significant cog in the Cardinals success machine.
The umpiring crew make a decision on the challenge—the call stands. The home fans get louder than they’ve been in about 5 innings. Safe! Runners on first and second, one out, a situation ripe enough to almost guarantee a 2-0 start, putting the rival Cards in a rare, early hole on the year.
Jordy Mercer walks up, ready to win this thing. Swagger on a hundred thousand trillion.
2-1 count, from Maness. Bad swing on a slider. 2-2 now.
The fans started getting rowdy with a second—and (they hope) final—wind. “Let’s go Bucs!” they chant, a line that always made little sense to me.
So you take your team name, find the closest synonym, and just chant that instead?
On my high school soccer team, about five times a season a kid would call for a pre-game “Dogs on three!” chant to try to be…edgy? (our school was the Huskies).
And I swear I remember hearing an Atlanta Falcons fan once say something like “You see that birds’ game yesterday?” but I hope I’m wrong.
So here comes Jordy Mercer, the sort-of-overlooked Pirate, a borderline veteran, drafted by the team years ago and in his 5th season now.
Mercer dials back in, waiting for his pitch.
He waits and waits, dials in. And then…
Smack—rips an opposite field double sneaking down the first base line.
Polanco sprints home, his huge loping legs striding down the third-base line…safe with no close throw!
Here’s what I hear from the St. Louis broadcast crew:
“Mercer….could be a game winner….. throw to the plate… Pirates win 6-5 in the 11th…” as they enter into the first of possibly many bouts of panic and woe, seeing the N.L. Central become not just legitimately vied for this year, but perhaps out of reach (the favored Cubs won 9-0 and 6-1 out in Anaheim to start the year).
And, more joyously, the Pirates radio announcers:
“Ground ball, base hit into right field!!! Here comes Gregory Polanco, the Buccos walk off in the 11th inning!! Raise the Jolly Roger on a Jordy Mercer hit down the line!!”
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) April 6, 2016
The team sprints out to second base to bear hug Mercer, with Clint Hurdle hanging back in the Pirates parka, applauding his boys as they trickle back into the dugout.
Its Mercer’s 4th career walk-off hit, and the second league walkoff of the year after Matt Wieters’ a day earlier.
And so, on to the next one—can the Pirates go for the message-sending series sweep?