PITTSBURGH -- When the Braves' Sid Bream touched home plate on an electric October night in 1992, he officially began the Pirates' long venture into the wilderness. The streak lasted for nearly 21 years -- 7,656 days, 20 hours, 14 minutes -- ending only when Pirates starter Francisco Liriano let the first pitch fly Tuesday night at 8:06 p.m.
But the Pirates and their long suffering fans made the most of their return to the postseason, thumping the Reds, 6-2, in the l NL wild-card game. The victory clinched a meeting with the Cardinals in the best-of-five NLDS beginning tomorrow night.
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"Twenty years is too long to wait for anything, really," said Pirates catcher Russell Martin, who bashed a pair of solo homers in the win.
In a nod to their history, the Pirates took the field wearing black Stargell Stars, a tradition started by '70s star Willie Stargell. The gesture only stoked the fans, who made themselves into active participants, turning the festivities into less of a baseball game and more of an open-air revival.
They roared as Liriano, who has been murder on lefthanders, shut down a Reds lineup powered mostly by lefthanders. He allowed just one run and four hits in seven innings. They exploded when Martin hit a pair of solo homers, when former Met Marlon Byrd teed off for one of his own, and when the Reds made a pair of fielding mistakes that led to two more runs.
However, Pirates fans saved their most menacing work for Reds righthander Johnny Cueto, whose nationally televised meltdown was hastened by their jeers.
"I know they got into Cueto's head a little bit," Martin said. "They might not admit to it but I know that it's definitely a tough environment for an opposing team."
Few pitchers would have been more qualified to dash the Pirates' hopes than Cueto, who in 13 career starts at PNC Park posted an 8-2 record and an ERA of 1.90. But Cueto couldn't have been ready for what greeted him this time, when he was chased with one out in the fourth inning, his team down 3-1.
Fans clad in black streamed over the Roberto Clemente Bridge hours before the first pitch, and those without tickets remained there, leaning over the railing for a view of the distant field. Those with seats arrived early to wave black towels handed out at the gates. Those without stood six deep at the edge of the main concourse while others scrunched in on the rails of the spiraling ramp overlooking leftfield.
Every one of them contributed to Cueto's demise.
"Quay-to! Quay-to! Quay-to!" the chant went up in the second inning.
Byrd, acquired in a trade with the Mets, led off the second with a homer in his first postseason at-bat. Two batters later, Cueto rubbed up the baseball, then dropped it while standing on the mound. The chants went up again, hitting a crescendo when Martin hammered Cueto's 95 mph fastball over the leftfield fence.
"The Bronx, the expectation is to win the World Series, and if you don't then you're kind of a disappointment," said Martin, who has thrived since parting ways with the Yankees, out of the playoffs partly because they struggled to find a replacement at catcher. "There's not much fun in that."
But there was plenty of fun in hitting the homer that opened the flood gates. Soon, 21 years of pent-up frustration was channeled toward just one man, Cueto, and he proved no match for history.