Pirates take a different road to same destination in 2014
ATLANTA — The out-of-town scoreboard at Turner Field rests high above left-field wall, and Pirates equipment manager Scott Bonnett watched it intently Tuesday as dusk turned to night.
When he saw the Milwaukee Brewers trailing in the seventh inning, he drifted back to the visiting clubhouse and began preparing the 120 bottles of champagne he had ordered. He filled plastic troughs typically used for Gatorade bottles with crushed ice. Encasing the lockers in plastic took 15 minutes.
The visitors clubhouse at Turner Field clubhouse held its 12th postseason clinching party Tuesday. The Brewers lost. The Pirates won, clinching back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1991-92.
Like when the club clinched a playoff berth exactly one year earlier at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Pirates again soaked themselves and a visiting clubhouse carpet with champagne.
When the champagne was extinguished, they moved to Budweiser. Andrew McCutchen, John Axford and Ike Davis smoked cigars. Russell Martin recorded some of the madness on his smart phone camera. Neil Walker doused data analyst Mike Fitzgerald in beer.
The clinch again took place on the road. The clinch again came on a cool Sept. 23 night. But almost everything else was different.
The Pirates took a step back in preventing runs, but a step forward in creating them in 2014. They were once eight games under .500 in early May. They never had a losing month in 2013. They had a number of unexpected contributors arise from Josh Harrison to Vance Worley to John Hodlzkom to fill voids.
“We’re a different group of guys,” reliever Jared Hughes said, “but getting back to the playoffs feels just as good.”
Nearly everyone uncorking champagne could feel they played a part. Last season, Harrison struggled to hang on as a 25th man. This season, he will receive MVP votes.
“We had guys come up and step in like we never missed a beat,” Harrison said. “From Day 1 in spring training Clint (Hurdle) said it’s going to take us all.”
The Pirates manager was prophetic in March, just as he had been a year earlier when he predicted 95 wins.
“Everyone has had to contribute in some shape or form throughout the season,” Hurdle said. “Everyone has played a role. Everyone has been significant. No more significance when three-fifths of the starting rotation was out and (Brandon) Cumpton, (Jeff) Locke and Worley come up. And it wasn’t just keeping our head above water, we got better.
“The development of the offense. The bullpen. We’ve had some ups and downs. On a bunch of different fronts we’ve gotten tremendous pushes from a bunch of different guys.”
Well, there were some similarities, as Gerrit Cole again was excellent in meaningful game as he had been last September, when he led the Pirates to win No. 82 in Texas. It was the beginning of a remarkable September for the rookie.
After struggling early, Cole settled down and was excellent, retiring 17 in a row to end his night.
The Pirates wore every variety of protective eyewear one could think of last season in the cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse, and they traveled with 85 pairs of goggles to Atlanta. But just as this is a different team, there were different approaches to soaking in the atmosphere. Tony Watson, who recorded the final three outs, went goggle-less. Said Watson: “I’m going to let it burn.”
The path to the second straight clinch was different, and so was the on-field celebration.
One year ago to the day, the Pirates clinched dramatically at Wrigley Field and formed a mob in the infield. On Tuesday, the on-field celebration was subdued.
No mosh pit, rather high fives were exchanged as if it was a victory in late May. As the postgame celebration calmed in the clubhouse, a soaked Pirates general manager Neal Huntington found a soaked Harrison. They embraced, and Harrison said something that summed up the mood of the club: “We still have work to do.”