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For McCutchen, little opportunity to play hero

NL MVP Award contender wasn't given proper chance to rescue Pirates in NLDS @philgrogers

ST. LOUIS -- You sit in the dugout and you think, "Maybe this time."

It doesn't work out, so you go back to the dugout and keep hoping, "Maybe next time."

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You do this even if you are Andrew McCutchen and you might win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. You do it knowing you're playing the biggest game of your life.

You do it even when you're having a numerically satisfactory postseason, because you want to beat the Cardinals, you want to face the Dodgers and, ultimately, you want to get the Pirates to the World Series.

And at the end of the most exciting run of baseball games you've played, one that started with a sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati and an electrifying victory over them in the NL Wild Card Game in "Blackout"' conditions at PNC Park, you circle the room hugging your teammates, and then you stand in front of your locker and try to express how it feels to pack away your uniform.

"Of course it definitely isn't the way you want it to end," McCutchen said after the Bucs' 6-1 loss in Game 5 ended their season on Wednesday. "It isn't the story you want to put in the book, but I guess every story can't have a happy ending. It's one of those stepping stones for you, and you have to take it in a positive manner. If you haven't failed, you haven't lived. I guess that's how you have to take it."

McCutchen batted .278 in the NL Division Series despite being hitless in his last eight at-bats, including 0-for-4 in Game 5. With Adam Wainwright back on the roll he carried through the NLDS opener, the Pirates needed McCutchen to be a hero. But he was afforded the tiniest of windows to step into that role.

In baseball, you can't run a play for your best wide receiver or put the ball in your best shooter's hands with the clock running down. Even the best hitters have to wait their turn, and McCutchen spent the last week waiting for a chance that never came.

Pittsburgh was 7-for-20 with runners in scoring position during the series -- not that McCutchen could testify to it. He was a mind-numbing 0-for-0 in one such plate appearance, getting walked by John Axford with Starling Marte on second base way back in the Bucs' Game 2 win. That was the only chance McCutchen had to drive in a run with a single, and the Cards' collection of right-handed power pitchers weren't giving up too many home runs, especially to right-handed hitters.

"It definitely didn't happen a whole lot for me," McCutchen said. "There's nothing really you can do about it, nothing I can do about it. You just have to try to go out there and have good at-bats. It's one of those things. This is the game of baseball. It doesn't always go your way, so you have to make the most of your opportunity. I wish I would have had that opportunity a little more, but it's something that didn't happen. [We] just have to show up next year, be ready for next year, preparing for next year and get better."

McCutchen hit 21 homers during the regular season, but none in October. His trademark moment from the NLDS came when he hopped to his feet and flashed the Zoltan sign (hands forming a crude letter Z) after a leadoff double in the eighth inning of Game 3, but it turns out that pitching and defense still beats the physical comedy of "Dude, Where's My Car?"

With leadoff man Marte going 1-for-19 and No. 2 hitter Neil Walker hitless in 19 at-bats, McCutchen came to the plate with men on base only three times in the series. But as late as the eighth inning on Wednesday, he thought he might get a crack to do something big.

Down, 3-1, the Pirates had Jordy Mercer on first base with one out. But before the fuse could be lit for McCutchen, Marte hit a line drive to second baseman Matt Carpenter that turned into an inning-ending double play. The Cardinals got the call from umpire Paul Nauert when Carpenter's throw arrived at first just as Mercer was getting back to the bag.

"If things would have changed, it could have been a difference in that part of the game, but the call didn't go our way," McCutchen said. "That's sort of the way it went tonight. It could have been different, but that's the way it panned out tonight. There's nothing you can do. You can't really think of what would have [happened]; just think of what did [happen] and learn from it and be ready for next year."

After McCutchen went 2-for-4 off Wainwright in Game 1, he said he would "sleep happy" looking forward to the rest of the series. But when he faced him on Wednesday, he took the collar, as Jack Buck might have said. McCutchen struck out in the first inning, after Walker had drawn a walk, but then had two groundouts and a deep fly that came down in Jon Jay's glove in the ninth inning.

Better luck next October.

There are no guarantees about getting back here on this stage, but McCutchen says the Pirates proved they're "not the laughingstock of baseball anymore." They'll head to Florida for Spring Training 2014 expecting to build off their first trip to the playoffs in 21 seasons.

"We definitely opened the eyes of a lot of people this year," McCutchen said. "We can't get away from everything we did do this year. We can't let this one game define our year, because we definitely had an amazing year, a year to remember, a year that's going to go down in the books forever. I'm definitely happy to be a part of it, and I'm definitely happy that this is the beginning for us."

Look out for McCutchen if the Pirates do return to the postseason. He's got a lot of big hits left in his bat -- the ones that were kept bottled up by the Cards.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Pittsburgh Pirates