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Pirates fans fired up for another wild-card game

Pittsburgh Pirates fans cheer during their National League

Pittsburgh Pirates fans cheer during their National League Wild Card game against the San Francisco Giants at PNC Park on Oct. 1, 2014 in Pittsburgh. Credit: Getty Images / Justin K. Aller

PITTSBURGH - A year ago, from his seat in the Pirates' dugout, Josh Harrison noticed something odd. After 21 years of October exile, the fans at PNC Park roared so loud that at times he couldn't hear the crack of the bat meeting the ball.

The throng even wrote its own chapter of postseason lore, goading Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who dropped the ball on the mound during the NL wild-card game. He was rattled, then chased, and the Pirates played on into the Division Series.

"I expect it to be similar to last year,'' Harrison said Wednesday night before the wild-card game against the Giants.

The fans did not disappoint.

One night after Royals fans turned Kauffman Stadium into an outdoor revival -- an outpouring that came after 29 seasons without postseason baseball -- Pirates fans turned out in force as if to prove they hadn't been spoiled after last year's playoff run.

Around the city, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he sensed a "vibe'' that signaled "buy in'' from a fan base that until last October had gone dormant. It didn't take long for that energy to spill out.

Kent Tekulve, ace reliever on the Pirates' 1979 world championship team, threw out the first pitch. Then he whipped the crowd into a frenzy when he waved a black towel, sparking a chant of "Let's go Bucs.''

They exploded once more in the first inning when Andrew McCutchen went into a slide to catch Buster Posey's drive to center. The crowd factored in again in the second, when it appeared that Giants second baseman Joe Panik couldn't hear rightfielder Hunter Pence calling him off of Gabby Sanchez's shallow fly ball.

"Our city is a proud city,'' Hurdle said. "It's a blue-collar city. They've been behind this ballclub, a lot of them, for forever.''

The Pirates themselves have taken on a blue-collar sensibility, reaching the playoffs for the second straight year by swallowing their pain. After six grueling months, there was no point in hiding it.

Russell Martin, their catcher and cleanup hitter, took batting practice in a black hooded sweatshirt. A left hamstring issue that has nagged at him all season endangered his participation in the wild-card game until Wednesday night, when his name was penciled into the lineup.

Still, as he walked toward the cage for his swings, Martin gave the smell of a weekend warrior covered in Bengay. It was the scent of soreness.

Hurdle needed the help of a stool to watch his team from behind the batting cage. An arthritic hip eventually will send him to the surgeon's table. As spring turned to summer and summer into fall, the condition has worsened.

"It's past the point where it just doesn't matter anymore,'' said Hurdle, who watched his team hit the gas pedal in September, finishing the month 18-9.

The Pirates' best baseball came at the best possible time, a surge that coincided with Harrison's ascent. A year ago, he shuttled between the big leagues and the minors. Once the postseason rolled around, his contribution amounted to a pair of pinch-running appearances.

But whenever a need emerged this season, the 27-year-old Harrison filled it. He started at least 10 games in leftfield, rightfield, second base and third base, where he has been stationed since Pedro Alvarez's throwing problems were compounded by a foot injury last month.

"At the end of the season is when I'll probably reflect,'' said Harrison, who hit .332 during the second half. "Hopefully, I'm reflecting with a World Series ring.''

New York Sports