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Hoist the Jolly Roger: Pirates return to postseason after 21-year absence

September 24th, 2013 2:00 am by ANDREW SELIGMAN, AP Sports Writer

Hoist the Jolly Roger: Pirates return to postseason after 21-year absence

Home plate umpire Mike DiMuro calls Chicago Cubs baserunner Nate Schierholtz out at home as Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin shows DiMuro the ball during the ninth inning Monday night in Chicago. (AP Photo)

CHICAGO — The long wait is over, Pittsburgh. Your Pirates are finally headed back to the postseason.

After a 21-year absence, the Pirates clinched at least a National League wild card Monday night when they beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1 and the Washington Nationals lost to St. Louis.

Now, they can turn their attention toward bigger goals, the kind that seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream through all those losing seasons.

"Even though I didn't lose for the last 20 years, they make you feel like you are. You feel like you lost those 20 years," Andrew McCutchen said. "That's all you hear. You hear it every single day — 'When's it going to change? You think this is the year?' You get sick and tired of hearing that. It's awesome that there won't be any questions anymore. The question is, 'Are we going to be able to go farther?' "

It will be Pittsburgh's first trip to the postseason since Barry Bonds, Jim Leyland and Co. won three straight NL East titles from 1990-92. Bonds then left for San Francisco as a free agent, and the small-budget Pirates piled up 20 consecutive losing records — the longest streak in the four major professional sports.

Starling Marte hit a tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, and the Pirates threw out a runner at the plate for the final out.

The Pirates sprayed each other with bubbly and beer and sparkling cider in the visitors' clubhouse once St. Louis' 4-3 win over the Nationals became final.

The Cincinnati Reds also clinched at least a wild-card berth when they beat the New York Mets 3-2 in 10 innings. The Pirates and Reds, both 90-67, trail St. Louis by two games in the NL Central with five to go.

Pittsburgh players sang Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." They chanted "MVP! MVP!" while dousing McCutchen. They took pictures and manager Clint Hurdle had them gather for a group photo in the middle of the cramped visitors' clubhouse.

"The people of Pittsburgh have been waiting a long time," said Neil Walker, who homered.

The Cubs tied it in the eighth off Mark Melancon (3-2) but the Pirates snapped the 1-all tie when Marte sent a drive off Kevin Gregg (2-6) with two outs in the ninth into the left field bleachers.

In a fitting coincidence, they then preserved the victory on the final out in a play at the plate.

McCutchen, the center fielder, picked up Ryan Sweeney's bloop single after right fielder Marlon Byrd failed in trying to scoop up the ball and threw to first baseman Justin Morneau, positioned just in front of the pitcher's mound. Morneau caught the throw on one hop and made the relay to catcher Russell Martin, who applied the tag on Nate Schierholtz trying to score from first base.

Still on his knees, Martin held the ball over his head in jubilation. Then he was embraced by closer Jason Grilli before heaving the ball toward deep left field as the Pirates celebrated near the mound. Grilli escaped with his 32nd save in 34 chances.

"Twenty-one years since we popped Champagne in a Pirates clubhouse — and we're acting like it's been a long time," Hurdle said. "The hard work, the fun. I'm just proud of each and every man in here, the fans they represent, ownership, general manager, president ... the scouts, players. This has been a group effort for a long time."

The Pirates' last trip to the playoffs ended with Atlanta's Sid Bream sliding home with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NL championship series.

Atlanta clinched the NL East on Sunday, and this time, it was the Pirates' turn to party.


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