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Pittsburgh enjoys baseball renaissance in 2013

PNC Park rocks as Pirates end 20-year drought, win NL Wild Card Game

It was a season of individual achievement and of team triumph. Of pie-in-the-sky dreams and pie-in-the-face walk-off heroics. Of having six months of steady play erupt into an uproarious week in October.

After flat-lining for two decades, the 2013 Pirates ripped off the shackles and swashbuckled as the Major League's top story of the year and as one of its top teams. Shedding 20 years of losing, the Bucs climbed over .500 for good in Game No. 17 on April 20. They were the Majors' first team to reach 50 wins, on June 29, and they ultimately finished with the sport's fifth-best record.

Manager Clint Hurdle talked enthusiastically about the young core of the team "growing up before our eyes," but nothing grew more dramatically than Pittsburgh's rekindled love with its baseball heroes -- an affair that culminated in the legendary PNC Park Blackout for the National League Wild Card Game ambush of Cincinnati.

Pedro Alvarez was the first Pirates player since Willie Stargell 40 years ago to lead the NL in homers (tying with Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt). A.J. Burnett was the first Pirates right-hander since Mel Queen 62 years ago to have the NL's top strikeout rate (9.8 per nine innings).

Andrew McCutchen led only in sway, breaking through as the league's MVP. Cutch and the Shark Tank bullpen -- the Bucs topped the NL with 55 saves -- were constants in a season that constantly raised spirits, goosebumps -- and the Jolly Roger.

So much went right, snapping so many indelible mental snapshots, that it is challenging to boil the season down to the top five chapters. Still, here are the leading takeaways from Pittsburgh's baseball renaissance.

1. Up in arms

The Bucs were swept up in a perfect storm of pitching developments. Heroics by the unheralded, comebacks by the forgotten, and breakthroughs by both low- and high-profile prospects added up to a constant force. Pittsburgh allowed two runs or fewer 75 times, representing nearly half of its games.

Jeff Locke took the ball early, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton took the ball late, and Burnett took it all the time. Veteran lefty Francisco Liriano was legitimately the guy who put the Bucs over the top: They were already winning by the time he made his injury-delayed debut on May 11, and the Comeback Player of the Year's 16 wins fueled them into October. Liriano and Burnett combined to go seven-plus innings 26 times, but the rest of the starters did so only 26 more times, leaving it up to the Mark Melancon-Jason Grilli-anchored bullpen to share the load.

This pitching co-op was the Pirates' engine. They scored 17 fewer runs than the year before, yet turned it into 15 more wins. The bullpen shuttle also played a huge role in enabling the Pirates to live up to one of Hurdle's favorite slogans: One more run; nothing matters beyond the bottom line of winding up with one more run than the other guys. The Bucs' 29 one-run wins were by 10-9 and 1-0 and everything in between.

2. Checklist

Whether allegorical or real, Hurdle's often-cited to-do list was a roadmap for the season. One by one, the Pirates crossed off items that collectively represented vengeance for 20 years of losing.

The Milwaukee problem? Being blown out in the season's first two games in Miller Park left the Pirates with 22 losses in 26 games in their house of horrors. They won the next day, and 12 times in their last 17 games with the Brewers. Check.

Central beating? Since joining the newly formed NL Central in 1994, the Pirates had never posted a winning record within the division -- until this past season's 45-31 mark. Check.

The West wing? Since the Pirates hadn't had an overall winning record since 1992, it wasn't particularly noteworthy that they hadn't won on the road since then, either. But their West Coast woes were particularly acute. Thus a late-June five-game Interleague sweep in Anaheim and Seattle was an exclamation point on the Bucs' 44-37 road mark. Check.

3. Four days in July

The previous two years, the symbolic midpoint of the season had turned into a very real wall for the Pirates. In 2011 and 2012, the Bucs entered the All-Star break in or near the NL Central lead and were swallowed by second-half fades. The pattern seemed to be repeating: The Bucs went into this break one game behind and came out of it splitting the first 10 games (actually poorer then either of the prior two years, when they started the second halves with 6-4 records).

They were set up for another fall, returning to PNC Park to open a long homestand under circumstances threatening to turn their contention into more pretension: A five-game series against the Cardinals, created by an earlier rainout. St. Louis came in leading the Pirates by a game and a half. The Pirates did not mess around; Alvarez set the tone with a three-run homer in the very first inning of the series, and four consecutive wins later -- including a doubleheader sweep -- the Bucs were up by 2 1/2.

The Pirates would go on to a 9-2 homestand, ending it with a 16-game cushion for a spot in the postseason, at least as the NL's second Wild Card. Their fate had been sealed.

4. Runaway Cole Train

On Sept. 3, Cole started a 4-3 victory in Milwaukee, setting off a celebration because that was win No. 81, formally getting the Pirates out of 20 years in the red. Four days of misery ensued, four straight blown-out losses, including total destruction during a three-game sweep in St. Louis.

The Bucs' mettle and resilience both faced the ultimate test, because that road next led to Texas and a blind date with mesmerizing righty Yu Darvish. Cole took the ball and the challenge, firing seven shutout innings of three-hit ball as the Pirates won, 1-0, on Alvarez's seventh-inning RBI double, touching off an Interleague sweep and another celebration -- because win No. 82 formally got them in the black.

Could there be a better omen for the future than Cole, two years after personifying the team's hope as its overall No. 1 Draft choice, delivering on that hope by starting both wins Nos. 81 and 82?

5. One long season captured in one long day

June 30. A Sunday afternoon in the (PNC) Park. Morton starts against the Brewers, gives up an unearned run in the second inning on a squeeze bunt. The skies open up minutes later; a two-hour, 20-minute delay finishes off Morton, burdening the Pittsburgh bullpen with the next seven innings ... or 12.

Vin Mazzaro retires all 15 men he faces in five innings. Justin Wilson works around a single in the top of the eighth.

McCutchen's single with two outs in the bottom of the eighth ties it at 1. The game and relievers' chokehold go on: Bryan Morris goes three up, three down in the ninth; Grilli allows a hit in a scoreless 10th; Melancon in the 11th and Tony Watson in the next three frames retire all 12 men they see.

In the bottom of the 14th, Russell Martin singles in a pinch for a 2-1 walk-off win. It is the ninth straight win for a Buccos team that evidently can even walk on rainwater: Six relievers had combined to blank Milwaukee for 12 innings on two hits, defining the "nothing is impossible" theme of the entire season.

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, Gerrit Cole, Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon