I tried to stay away. Really, I did.
There was just one hitch to my plan: I didn’t actually have anything else to do tonight, so my plan to avoid the Pirates was to hole up in my apartment and watch TV on my iPad. My iPad that flashes a notification whenever runs are scored in the Pirates’ game. So I knew the Pirates were up 4-0 and I knew that Charlie Morton hit a wall in the sixth and the Reds took a 5-4 lead on two home runs.
“Thank goodness I’m not watching this,” I said to myself.
I kept on going with The Sopranos. (What? It’s only been off the air for seven years. When I say I’ll watch something eventually, I mean eventually.) An episode ended and that voice came back in my head.
“You haven’t gotten a game over notification yet. It’s must still 5-4. Why don’t you pull up the MLB app and see what’s happening?”
I caved. I pulled up the GameCast and, I kid you not, what I saw was that Jonathan Broxton was on the mound to pitch to Andrew McCutchen in the top of the ninth inning. Realizing that Chapman had to be unavailable, I hit the video button two pitches before McCutchen sent Broxton’s not-quite-low-enough fastball over the center field fence. I watched on, hoping that Walker or Martin or Alvarez would be able to do the same thing to Broxton. When the Pirates didn’t score again, I decided that I didn’t want to see another bullpen meltdown and turned the game back off. What can I say? I’m weak. So yes, I missed Polanco’s throw and Martin’s incredible scoop/tag. I kept an eye on the game, though, and so I knew that McCutchen would come back up in the bottom of the 11th.
One of my most vivid memories from the early part of 2013 is this game against the Brewers from mid-May. I was in a hotel room with a terrible internet connection, so I couldn’t really watch the game. I put the radio broadcast on my phone and listened as the Pirates scored two runs to tie the game against the Brewers, then laid tensely in an uncomfortable hotel bed waiting for them to blow the game in extra innings. The Pirates have A Thing with the Brewers, as I’m sure you’re aware, and even though the Pirates were playing good baseball (they were 21-17 at that point, having won three in a row and four of six) in late April and early May last year, they lost two of three to the Brewers in their first series and then dropped the first game of this particular series. And so I laid awake in bed in a hotel room, certain that the Pirates were going to find a horrible way to blow the game.
Instead, Andrew McCutchen hit a walkoff home run. I picked up my phone, loaded up the video as soon as I could, and when I watched the highlight, I thought that it seemed like McCutchen wasn’t even that excited when he crossed home plate. His teammates were jumping up and down, going crazy, and he had this look on his face that I thought said, “This is how it’s done. This crap with the Brewers ends here.” For 2013, it did. The Pirates went into that night 1-3 against the Brewers, and including McCutchen’s walkoff they went 11-4 against them for the rest of 2013. Obviously this is me adding narrative in a place where it might not exist, but I felt like McCutchen put the flag down that night.
There’s a lot of debate every year about what “valuable” means when it comes to the MVP award: whether “valuable” means the best player in baseball, or whether there’s some deeper and more intangible meaning to be found that involves players that come up in big moments for playoff teams. That discussion sort of always irks me, because the reality is this: it’s the only the very best players that can do what Andrew McCutchen did tonight. The Pirates have played well against the Cardinals and the Reds this week. Their record doesn’t say that they have, but they have. It’s a discouraging thing to go out and play five good games in six attempts against two division rivals, and to only come out of that six-game stretch with one win. With Johnny Cueto on the mound tomorrow, well, a 1-6 run this week might not be back-breaking, but it’d sure create an extra two hurdles that didn’t exist for the Pirates at this time a week ago. It’s the sort of thing that can stew, especially over the All-Star Break.
What the Pirates needed tonight was for their best player to put the flag down. For him to say, “This is how it’s done. This crap with the Central ends here.” I don’t know if anyone else on the team could have done it. I mean, at least one or two other guys are physically capable of doing it, but I think it has a different effect when it comes from the MVP. At least, I hope it has a different effect when it comes from the MVP. After a week of losing winnable games, Andrew McCutchen had enough. Instead of going into the break with their tails between their legs, the Pirates now have a chance to take two of three from the Reds and enter the break tied for third, 2 1/2 games back in the division. And yes, they have their problems, particularly with the pitching staff right now. And no, I’m not at all sure that they’ll be able to keep pace with the playoff races in the second half. But they do have Andrew McCutchen, and that’s something that nobody else has. That’s a good place to start.