I don't know how to say anything coherent about this game. Let's open up with that and go from there.
Through three games, the only thing that this Pirates playoff run was been missing was a nail-biting, heart-pounding Playoff Game ™. Given Francisco Liriano's success against the Cardinals this year and Joe Kelly's success against the Pirates, I had a hunch that that might be what we were in for tonight, but living through it was a different experience entirely.
Francisco Liriano was the pitcher that he's been for most of the second half of the season; unhittable early on, then slowly deteriorating with every turn of the lineup. After he breezed through the first seven hitters, he found himself constantly in trouble and giving up hard-hit balls from the late third inning onwards. Still, he managed to bear down and get himself out of most of the jams he found himself in, save the top of the fifth. Liriano didn't get any help from the umpires that inning — it looked like Russell Martin threw Jon Jay out at third to complete a strike 'em out throw 'em out double play that would've ended the inning — but he also walked Pete Kozma and decided to pitch to Carlos Beltran after falling behind 2-0 in the count, with disastrous results.
The counterpart to that was the middle of the Pirates' lineup. They had an answer for everything that the Cardinals did tonight; Andrew McCutchen drew a two-out walk in the first that turned into a 2-0 lead after a Justin Morneau single/error and a Marlon Byrd two-run single. After the Cardinals tied the game in the fifth, McCutchen drew another walk in the bottom of the sixth, moved to third with a Byrd double, and scored on a Russell Martin sac fly.
All of these things set the stage for a wildly intense eighth inning. When the seventh ended with the Pirates ahead 3-2, all I could think was that on one hand I should be excited to hand a one-run lead to Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli and on the other hand, those two facing the heart of the Cardinals' lineup was a terrifying thought. Two pitches later, Carlos Beltran had crushed a solo homer into right-center field and all of the crazy insecurities that come along with being a Pirate fan bubbled up. What if Melancon's really lost it? How bad might this inning get? Who would pitch the ninth inning if the score was tied? Would it be Jason Grilli or would it be Bryan Morris? Is Jeanmar Gomez ready for a 19-inning game?
As Melancon calmly navigated the 3-4-5 portion of the Cardinals lineup, another thought occured: the Pirates have the middle of the lineup due up. Andrew McCutchen lead off the eighth by reaching base for the fourth time in Game 3 with a leadoff double smoked down the left field line. Justin Morneau hit a sharp ground ball to short on the first pitch of his at-bat and McCutchen took off for third on contact for some reason, which ended with McCutchen being thrown out. For just one moment, the air went out of PNC Park and 40,000+ got about as quiet as believable. Marlon Byrd bailed McCutchen out, though, by drawing an eight-pitch walk. That more or less negated the base-running error, but it brought Pedro Alvarez to the plate and Mike Matheny ready to switch to the lefty Kevin Siegrist.
With a potentially pivotal Game 3 of the NLDS on the line and a hard-throwing lefty reliever on the mound, Pedro Alvarez fell behind 0-1 in the count, took a ball, and singled through the right side of the infield to bring home the go-ahead run. The same Pedro Alvarez that struck out twice against Joe Kelly after getting ahead 3-1 in the count. Russell Martin followed Alvarez's single up with one of his own, to give the Pirates a 5-3 lead. As it turns out, it doesn't matter how many leads you blow in a game so long as you can hold on to the last one. That 5-3 lead was enough for Jason Grilli.
I'm still struggling to find ways to process this. The Pirates blew two leads tonight, and every time the Cardinals punched, the heart of the Pirates' order had a counter-punch. Andrew McCutchen was 2-for-2 with two walks, two runs scored, and his double in the eighth inning started the game-winning rally even though he ran himself off of the bases. Marlon Byrd had the big two-run single in the first inning, he had the double that put McCutchen in scoring position in the sixth, and he drew the walk that negated McCutchen's running error in the eighth. Russell Martin had a sac fly and an RBI single. Pedro Alvarez had what is, to this point, the biggest hit of the season and it came against a left-handed reliever, no less.
The Pirates have a 2-1 lead in the NLDS. They are one win away from the National League Championship Series. Tomorrow's game is at PNC Park. For tonight, at least, that's enough.