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Giants, Bucs traveled similar paths to Wild Card Game

PITTSBURGH -- The Giants and Pirates traveled similar roads to get here. That's not important now. Right, Hunter Pence?

"That's the beauty of it," San Francisco's right fielder said.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. To work for eight months, to endure injuries and slumps and all the rest, and then to lay it all on the line for one game seems, well, cruel.

"Seriously, it's a beautiful thing," Pence said. "We're right where we're supposed to be."

Indeed, that may be the beauty of thing. The Giants and Pirates are in the postseason, and they're both good enough to win the World Series. First, though, there's this little matter of playing the National League Wild Card Game at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN). Both managers will tell you that their clubs revealed plenty of good things about themselves along the way. Both are resilient and determined. Both are confident, too. Both believe they're capable of writing whatever ending they want to write.

If you took a snapshot of the Giants and Pirates at certain points of the season, you might have caught a team that looked like the best in baseball. At certain other points, both teams looked like clubs going nowhere. Both were hit hard by injuries. Both had stretches when they didn't play well.

"We had to dig this one out of the dirt," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said.

He's referring to the fact that his team was 18-26 on May 2 and didn't clear .500 for good until June 26.

"We never felt sorry for ourselves," Pittsburgh third baseman Josh Harrison said. "When we were eight [games] under, we didn't even know we were eight under. I know people probably panicked, but nobody in here panicked. We feed off each other and believe in each other."

The Pirates evolved during the season. Injuries allowed Hurdle to start writing Harrison's name in the lineup more often. Harrison started the season as a reserve, but he ended up starting 21 games in left, 23 in right, 13 at second, four at short and 55 at third.

And a star was born. Harrison batted .315 and made the NL All-Star team.

Three-fifths of Pittsburgh's starting rotation got hurt as well, but even that has been a blessing in disguise.

The Pirates begin the postseason with no starter having thrown 200 innings and with only Wednesday starter Edinson Volquez having made 30 starts. As former Bucs manager Jim Leyland often said, "It's not the team with the best pitching in October. It's the team with the healthiest pitching."

The Pirates are healthy, and they're rolling. They finished on a 17-6 kick, with every part of the team clicking.

"We had to be steadfast, stubborn," Hurdle said. "We had to trust our guys and trust each other to continue to play. We believe we had enough talent to fight our way into this."

Andrew McCutchen (.378), Harrison (.330) and Starling Marte (.366) all had great finishes during the closing stretch.

And that fresh rotation? Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Volquez were 10-0 with a 1.88 ERA during the 17-6 finish.

Having endured the tough years, McCutchen said a slow start was no big deal.

"I always say -- I somewhat make a joke of it -- but we know how it feels to lose," McCutchen said. "When we're down, it's not really a big deal for us. We lost for a very long time. We know what we're capable of doing."

The Giants were 43-21 on June 8 and leading the NL West by 10 games. They were hitting home runs like crazy and looking pretty much unstoppable.

Only San Francisco did stop, losing 18 of its next 23. The Giants stopped scoring runs. They were hit hard by injuries, especially to center fielder Angel Pagan and first baseman Brandon Belt. They would lose right-hander Matt Cain as well. Only Belt is available for the postseason.

And then just when it looked like the Giants would disappear from the radar, they rallied nicely and got within two games of the Dodgers in the NL West on Sept. 17.

San Francisco faded some down the stretch, but here it is back in the postseason for the third time in five years. The Giants have a large group of players that won the World Series in 2010 and '12, so there's a confidence about what's ahead.

"I think it's been a good year," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. "Challenging? No question. With our injuries, our play, it's been a tale of two teams."

Regardless of which of those teams shows up Wednesday night, these Giants are special to their manager.

"The one constant, which I love about these guys, they're fighters," Bochy said. "They don't get down. They keep pushing. They focus for it as well as any group I've had. That's what it took to get here.

"If you look at certain points of the season, we very easily could have just collapsed. But they found a way to get back on track, and I compliment them. I'm just glad they're here and getting a chance."

The Pirates feel exactly the same way.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants