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Bucs buckle down late, move to within win of NLCS

Alvarez puts Pirates up after tying HR off Melancon; Grilli closes ninth

PITTSBURGH -- When this postseason began, Clint Hurdle was asked whether his Pirates, having merely earned the right to play beyond Game 162, were now playing with "house money."

Hurdle's eyes flashed bolts.

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"Not at all. That's not the thinking of the guys in there," the manager said, tilting his head toward the clubhouse. "There's only one thing on their minds. You go into it planning to win the World Series."

One step at a time, but the Bucs, Major League dregs for 20 years, took a big step Sunday toward the next step -- which would come at the expense of National League postseason royalty.

With a tiebreaking RBI single by Pedro Alvarez and an insurance one by Russell Martin in the eighth inning, Pittsburgh downed St. Louis, 5-3, to push the Cardinals' backs against the wall of sound put up by 40,489 at PNC Park.

Hurdle has been steadfastly declining to identify a potential Game 5 starter -- a relatively controversial choice between veteran A.J. Burnett and rookie Gerrit Cole -- until it was relevant. Now he hopes to never have to make that choice -- from which he would be absolved if the Pirates knock out the Cardinals in Monday afternoon's Game 4 (3 p.m. ET on TBS).

The Bucs could be that close to advancing to the NL Championship Series and making that wall of sound so tall and sturdy, not even Gabriel could bring it down.

Alluding to the early weekday start of Game 4, Neil Walker said, "I'm hoping a lot of people take off from work or school [Monday]."

Have no fear, the house will be rocking and emotions will surf a wave that has been cresting for 21 years. Pirates fever is like The Blob, spreading from neighborhood to office building and to other venues in this City of Champions.

The "Let's Go Bucs!" chants for Sunday's game in PNC Park actually began Saturday night in Consol Center, where the Penguins were facing off with Buffalo. Several Pirates players attended the game, and when their faces flashed on the video board, the place erupted. When Marc-Andre Fleury hit the ice waving a giant Jolly Roger, the fans completely lost it.

The city has lost it. Five hours before Sunday's first pitch, the streets around PNC Park were filled with people waving those Pirate flags and wearing black.

On an unusually warm early October day -- temperature for the 4:30 p.m. first pitch was still 84 degrees -- black was not the most comfortable attire. Pirates fans gladly suffered through another PNC Park Blackout.

When this Pirates ride is all over, ears, nose and throat specialists in the 'Burgh will need larger waiting rooms.

Andrew McCutchen gave Sunday's crowd a large assist for the decisive rally in the eighth. With his leadoff double, McCutchen himself fueled the frenzy -- which wouldn't recede even after he ran into the inning's first out by trying to advance to third on Justin Morneau's grounder to short.

"We kept it going, got the fans into it -- and I think that's all we needed to do. We picked each other up -- and that's what we've done all year," McCutchen said. "I really think our fans make a difference in that, keeping us in the ballgame, not letting [momentum] shift to them.

"They stay loud through the course of the game. It's definitely a plus for us, and we just kept answering back."

Their answers consistently were for Carlos Beltran, whose two-run fifth-inning single off Francisco Liriano erased a 2-0 lead, and whose eighth-inning homer off Mark Melancon erased another lead of 3-2.

"But the thing is ... I never felt like we were going to lose," Melancon said. "I don't know if that's from playing a lot of one-run games [the Bucs were 29-23 in those] or what, but never once did I feel like we would lose that game."

It is almost like the Pirates don't want to let down all the people hanging on every one of their pitches, their hits -- their inevitable comebacks.

"We hear the fans having a good time, cheering for us, and we're just trying to do everything we can to please them," said Liriano, whose ears were still ringing from the crowd chanting his name -- five days ago, during his NL Wild Card Game victory over the Reds. "That was very exciting. But I just try to stay in the game, not get too excited."

The visitors' challenge is to not get too rattled. To the Cards' credit, they genuinely appeared to get their own rise out of the electricity in the house.

"They were awesome," saluted St. Louis third baseman David Freese. "It was fun. That is what you expect playoff atmospheres to be. They did a heck of a job rallying around their team."

"I thought the atmosphere was great," echoed Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "We love the excitement and the noise. It was great to see that the people here are into it."

As they had on Tuesday, the Pirates made sure that the pregame fervor building for hours would not peter out, by scoring first, this time on Marlon Byrd's two-out, two-run single off Joe Kelly in the first inning.

The crowd's "Kel-ly! Kel-ly!" chants did not have as dramatic an effect as "Cue-to! Cue-to!" had on Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto in Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game. Still, to ensure a better chance of success, future Pirates postseason visitors might do well to trade for Brett Oberholtzer or some other pitcher with a chant-challenged name.

By following up that 6-2 victory over Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card Game, the Bucs won home consecutive games in the same postseason for the first time since Games 3-4 of the 1971 World Series.

That was Roberto Clemente's World Series. It followed Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series and preceded Willie Stargell's 1979 World Series. Generations of Pittsburghers have been told of those storied times. A new band of Pirates could be writing new stories for a new generation.

To whom will the 2013 World Series belong? The way this trip has begun, if they get there, it will not belong to any individual player -- but to an entire city.

Hurdle always talks about batters "taking ownership of at-bats." The 'Burgh is intent on taking ownership of October.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, Marlon Byrd, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Mark Melancon