In each of the past three years, Sept. 23 was a special date for the Pirates.
On Sept. 23, 2013, the Pirates clinched a National League wild-card spot by beating the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The victory snapped a 20-year playoff drought.
On Sept. 23, 2014, the Pirates clinched at Turner Field in Atlanta. On Sept. 23, 2015, the Pirates secured their third straight wild-card berth at Coors Field in Denver.
On Friday, when the calendar again flipped to Sept. 23, a team had a chance to celebrate a playoff-clinching victory at PNC Park.
This time, though, it was not the Pirates.
The Washington Nationals began the day with a magic number of two to wrap up the NL East title. Crates of champagne were chilled in the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park.
Those bottles remain unopened.
The Pirates scored a run in the ninth inning off former closer Mark Melancon to tie it, and in the 11th, pinch hitter Jacob Stallings’ RBI single snatched a 6-5 victory from the Nationals.
Stallings was the last batter available on the bench as the two teams combined to use 44 players, including 17 pitchers.
“I did the math in my head and knew: bases loaded, two outs was the only way I was going to come up in that inning,” Stallings said. “After the first pitch, I got the nerves out of the way. I settled back in and went with my approach.”
The rally pleased Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who wasn’t keen on watching another team celebrate on his home field.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Hurdle said. “I do know when it does happen, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth when you see it.”
Sean Rodriguez’s two-out double scored pinch runner Pedro Florimon from first base to tie the score 5-5 in the ninth.
“I thought I made a good pitch, but Sean got good wood on it,” Melancon said. “Those line drives are tough. Just tip your cap to Sean. A good piece of hitting.”
The ball soared over the head of center fielder Trea Turner, who was set up somewhat shallow.
“I know he should be playing deeper, but he’s inexperienced out there,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s our fault for him not playing deeper. The ball took off on him.”
It was Melancon’s first blown save with the Nationals and his first outing in Pittsburgh since the Pirates traded him July 30. As Melancon threw his final warm-up tosses, the JumboTron showed a brief video message to him.
“It was very classy, very cool,” Melancon said. “I wanted to tip my cap, but I didn’t want to mess up my mojo. I wish I’d have tipped my cap.”
Rodriguez said his familiarity with Melancon wasn’t a difference-maker.
“I know what Mark’s throwing, like any other pitcher,” Rodriguez said. “You just hope he throws it in a spot where you can do something, where you can drive it.”
In the 11th, Francisco Cervelli doubled, and Andrew McCutchen and Florimon walked.
With two outs, Stallings drove a 3-2 pitch from Yusmeiro Petit over the outstretched arm of third baseman Anthony Rendon.
The Pirates’ playoff chances are slim and a late-season rash of injuries has not helped. Outfielder Starling Marte likely is done for the season after his cranky back acted up again Thursday.
Gregory Polanco, who replaced Marte in left field Friday, left the game in the first inning because of a bruised face. He slammed into the padded outfield wall while chasing Bryce Harper’s double.
Polanco winced and seemed woozy as he was checked out on the field by an athletic trainer, then walked to the dugout.
“It was a hard collision,” Hurdle said. “He said, ‘I can see out of my right eye, but my left eye is a little dizzy. I’m OK.’ We said, no, you’re not OK.”
In the second inning, the Nationals hammered four straight extra-base hits off rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon and built a 3-0 lead. Taillon settled in after that, and those wound up being the only runs he allowed in five innings.
“In the second inning, those weren’t crazy-bad pitches,” Taillon said. “That’s a really good lineup.”
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib. Tribune-Review staff writer Bob Cohn contributed.