PITTSBURGH -- You could sit in the press box perch high above PNC Park and see them streaming across the Roberto Clemente Bridge more than an hour prior to first pitch. Pirates fans. Thousands of them. And they filled the seats here. In August!
This is real.
They came to behold the finale of that rare beast that is a five-game series, and this particular set against the National League Central rival St. Louis Cardinals was billed locally as The Most Important Series in the History of PNC Park, which, you know, was a low bar to cross. But we'll go ahead and give it capital letters, all the same, with the hope that its stay in series stature is a short one, soon to be replaced by what takes place in September and -- dare I say -- beyond.
The Pirates, owners of baseball's best record and best story, didn't take Thursday night's finale. Charlie Morton labored, what had been -- in recent days -- an anemic Cardinals offense awoke and St. Louis saved face with a 13-0 shellacking.
Whatever. The Buccos still took four of five, took first place out of the clutches of a Cards team that lost its most vital player, Yadi Molina, in the process. It's difficult, in a 162-game behemoth, to make a so-called "statement" in a small stretch of games. But the Pirates made one here, and then, appropriately, did everything in their power not to make too big a deal out of it.
"It's good that we're doing what we're doing," said star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, "but every game is important, from the first to the last. Just because we're playing a team in our division doesn't make it more important. That's the way we've been taking it. It seems to be working for us."
No doubt, guys like McCutchen, who were around when the Pirates so thoroughly plummeted in 2011 and '12, know too well not to take any of this for granted. Good on them for getting the memo.
But the faith and fascination among the fan base is growing. You can see it in the increasing attendance tallies, you can see it in the sports page, where Steelers training camp coverage is finally pushed below the fold, and you can see it in Aisle 5 at Clint Hurdle's go-to grocery store in the suburbs, where a fan approached the manager Thursday to passionately offer some suggestions on Starling Marte's stance.
"It is a little more fervent now, for good reason," Hurdle said. "Because they're starting to brand it up in the suburbs more than I've ever seen. You feel the synergy when you get downtown. But where I'm at in the North Hills, it's getting good."
It's good for all of us, Yinzers or otherwise, who have a soft spot for lovable losers, a label the Pirates wore frequently, though not proudly, for two psychologically damaging decades.
Mathematically, the Pirates have all but assured themselves of shaking off that label, because the tank job it would take to fall back below .500 is all but inconceivable. The Buccos have officially provided their fans with permission to think beyond 82 wins and dream a little bigger.
This series was the permission slip.
Now, how long Molina will be out, how long the Pirates will hold on and what the lurking Reds, who are waiting on improved health, will have to say about any of this are matters very much to be determined. But the good news is the Central will be determined on the field. The Pirates and Cards still have nine more meetings, the Buccos will face the Reds six times and the Cards will face the Reds 10 times, beginning this weekend.
The division certainly wasn't decided by anything that took place at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, because all three clubs stood pat. The fact that the Pirates abstained from any acquisitions was viewed, by some, to be particularly perplexing, given their gaping hole otherwise known as right field and the workload endured by a bullpen that is currently sans closer Jason Grilli.
Other clubs, in fact, tried to pry prized prospects out of general manager Neal Huntington's hands by not so subtly reminding him how long it's been since his Pirates have been in this position and what it would mean for his fans if he did something bold.
As if he needed reminding.
"We were willing to do something stupid. We just weren't willing to do something insane," said Huntington, in what had to be the line of the week.
The Pirates either got the Marlins rubbing their collective chin with an offer for Giancarlo Stanton or were ignored like everybody else, depending on who or what you believe. They also reportedly made a play for Mark Trumbo and did the necessary due diligence on more obvious trade candidates like Alex Rios, Justin Morneau and Nate Schierzholtz.
All for naught.
"We explored all levels," Huntington said. "Our intent going into the Deadline was that our belief in this club caused us to want to improve, but our belief in this club also allowed us to not do something insane. At the end of the day, we decided our best move was no move."
In the days before the Deadline, Huntington would run some ideas by Hurdle -- ideas involving some of Pittsburgh's most coveted young arms -- that caused the skipper to view Huntington in a new light. He saw growth in aggression on the part of the sixth-year GM, who, to this point, has been more protective than proactive when it comes to external additions.
Stupid in lieu of insane?
"That's a fine line, isn't it, my man?" Hurdle said with a smile. "It all depends how it turns out."
Turns out, the Pirates will go with the "safety net," as Hurdle termed it, that they've got, knowing full well their current place atop the totem pole allows every other Major League team to block them on the August waiver wire.
Hurdle, for one, will have to hope his rotating right-field cast will contribute, and that the slow-to-come bats of Neil Walker, Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata will flourish at full force. Otherwise, an offense in the NL's bottom rung in runs per game will struggle to gain ground.
Furthermore, Hurdle must continue to monitor the workload of a bullpen that ranks third in the NL in innings pitched, lest strength turn to weakness. Truth be known, though, Hurdle has already done his due diligence on that front all season, not letting guys go three days straight when they've logged 30 total pitches the two previous days.
The most pertinent constant for the Pirates is their defensive play. With an emphasis on infield shifts and a speedy outfield in which McCutchen and Marte are both stellar, they are third in the Majors, trailing only the D-backs and Royals, in defensive runs saved this season, according to Baseball Reference. That's an important point on a club that has navigated through the use of 11 different starting pitchers without missing a beat.
If you put much stock in such advanced metrics, that's one area where the Pirates have outclassed the Cards considerably.
"Whether it's our advance guys live out in the field or our video guys or the guys who crunch the numbers, our team has done a great job," Huntington said. "The bottom line is we've got guys in the field that, when the ball is hit to them, they've picked it up and turned it into an out, and our pitchers have executed the gameplan that's been put into place. We've been very efficient at turning balls in play into outs."
What happened here, finale aside, was an efficient and effective takedown of the currently wobbly Cards. It won't get any easier from this point, and the schedule won't allow for anything other than the best team to win. So, to a man, the Pirates players will tell you this series didn't mean much.
But it meant a ton to those fans streaming across the Clemente Bridge, crossing to the other side of the river and liking the view.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less