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In-season challenges prepared Bucs for this moment

Pirates even-keeled despite daunting task of beating Wainwright, Cards in Game 5

PITTSBURGH -- Even though the Pirates won 94 games during the regular season and resided in either first or second place in the National League Central every day from June 21 on, their journey to the postseason wasn't an easy one. The Bucs went 14-12 in July, 14-14 in August and had to sweep a three-game series from the Reds in Cincinnati during the final weekend of September to finish that month with a 15-12 mark.

The Pirates have been battling their way through ups and downs for more than three months now, and after Monday's 2-1 loss to the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NL Division Series at PNC Park, they'll have to keep on battling -- in St. Louis, to be precise. That's where winner-take-all Game 5 will take place Wednesday (8 p.m. ET on TBS).

"We've won there before. We've just got to go there and get the job done," Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We would have liked to have gotten it here at home in front of our crowd, but it doesn't always go the way you want it to go. We still have another game to play, and we're going to show up and be ready to go."

Even though the Pirates were being no-hit by Michael Wacha into the eighth inning, they wound up having McCutchen -- their NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate -- at the plate with the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth. McCutchen popped out to Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter to end the contest, but the Bucs gave the 40,493 fans at PNC Park hope that they might see their team celebrate advancing to the NL Championship Series until the final out. This on a day Pittsburgh collected only one hit.

"This team is a winning team. We know how to win," closer Jason Grilli said. "We gave ourselves a chance at the end today. We always play right to the end."

Pirates under pressure
Pittsburgh is 6-3 in the ultimate game of a postseason round
Date Game Opp. Res.
10/1/2013 NLWC 1 Cin. 6-2 W
10/14/1992 NLCS 7 Atl. 3-2 L
10/17/1991 NLCS 7 Atl. 4-0 L
10/17/1979 WS 7 Bal. 4-1 W
10/11/1972 NLCS 5 Cin. 4-3 L
10/17/1971 WS 7 Bal. 2-1 W
10/13/1960 WS 7 NYY 10-9 W
10/15/1925 WS 7 Was. 9-7 W
10/16/1909 WS 7 Det. 8-0 W

After the game, the Pirates' clubhouse was subdued, but it was still far from a depressing scene. Players around the room mixed packing their bags for St. Louis with answering questions from reporters, and they handled both tasks in a matter-of-fact way.

Grilli, who registered a save against the Cards in the Bucs' 5-3 victory in Game 3 on Sunday, is definitely one of the team's emotional leaders. And although he doesn't claim to know what will happen on Wednesday, he's looking forward to the challenge and excitement the game will provide.
"You never know who is going to win. That's why you play these games out," Grilli said. "There's always drama. The better team doesn't always win, the team that plays better wins. We've done well against the Cardinals all year long. We win that game and we get to go to the next round.

"It's going to be an exciting one, for sure. You just have to keep your composure. The highs are high and the lows are low, if you let them. Staying in the middle is where you want to be. You just try and stay right there, and this team has done that all year long."

So far, this roller coaster of a series has featured blowouts early on -- a 9-1 victory by St. Louis in Game 1 and Pittsburgh's 7-1 triumph in Game 2 -- and two lower-scoring and more hotly contested games since.
"There are a lot of different emotions you go through during these games," McCutchen said. "It's definitely been a whirlwind, but it's exciting at the same time."

"St. Louis is going to be a very excited place come Wednesday," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker added. "So we're going to have to do a good job of honing in, focusing on what we need to do, and take advantage of the opportunities we get."

Marlon Byrd, the Bucs' right fielder, complimented Wacha by calling him "the next coming of Adam Wainwright." And on Wednesday, the Pirates will face Wainwright himself, who won 19 games during the regular season and beat them in Game 1 of this series.

"He's going to come out and do what he always does -- pound the zone, throw his breaking ball short, try to get swings and misses, try to get balls put in play early," Byrd said. "So we're just going to have to go out there and try to have good at-bats."

And battle -- like always.

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to
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