PITTSBURGH -- If pennant fever -- the genuine, September-strain pennant fever -- has a perceptible incubation point, in Pittsburgh, it struck at 9:52 p.m. ET Wednesday night. Something magical happened at that instant in PNC Park. The crowd watching the Pirates and Cardinals had behaved routinely all game, cheering and gasping at the right times. But when there were two outs in the top of the ninth and Joel Hanrahan eyed Rafael Furcal, the fans suddenly stood and stomped and chorused, "Let's go Bucs!"
If you didn't know better, you would think all those people had been holding their breath all night, waiting for the inevitable crash to total their Bucs. And when the Pirates found themselves within one out of a 5-0 victory, of consecutive shutouts of the noble Cards -- of dancing atop what days earlier had appeared to be their grave -- those fans suddenly realized: This is for real. And within one more out, the Pirates would be hitting the open seas to prolong this ecstasy, and those fans wanted to give them a proper sendoff. You could almost make out the subliminal message between those farewell cheers. "Bring the dream back with you in a week. And when you do, we'll be here waiting for you." So at 9:52 p.m. on Aug. 29, instead of turning into a pumpkin, Cinderella's carriage got a fresh team of horses. "We're running out of games," said manager Clint Hurdle. "That's what makes it exciting." The Pirates have a course into October, as clearly as they have a symbol: Josh Harrison going all Larry Csonka on Yadier Molina. If this season winds into a postseason, where the impossible comes within reach, Harrison's scoring attempt in the second inning of Tuesday's game will take its place among the great reveille calls in baseball history. Right alongside Kirk Gibson's gimpy pinch-hit homer, the Yankees' Boston Massacre, Dick Schofield's eight-run ninth-capping walk-off grand slam for the Angels over the Tigers -- there will be Harrison smothering Molina. "I certainly wasn't thinking of inspiring anyone with that play," Harrison said. "But if that's how people took it, that's fine." The Bucs' remaining 32 games include 23 against also-ran teams, with 14 of the 17 on the road -- starting with this weekend's series in Milwaukee. Nineteen of those 32 games are against the National League Central's bottom three teams, which do include the still-dangerous Brewers, along with the 80-loss Cubs and 90-loss Astros. The Pirates do not have to apologize for this favorable schedule. They have handled the big boys, too, having already taken the season series from St. Louis and having split a dozen with the first-place Reds, against whom they have three-game home-and-home series remaining. But they do have to cash in on it. "We have to beat the teams we're supposed to beat," general manager Neal Huntington said. The Bucs have earned this shot to aspire far higher than the mere end of that notorious streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. "We're trying not to be slaves to history. We're trying to create new history," Hurdle said. "There have been 19 hard seasons of challenging baseball here. We're not a perfect club; I've said that all along. "As the season unfolds, there will be hard times and struggles which will define these men. But in the big picture, they believe they can win every time they take the field." The working definition of those men is resiliency, a co-op clubhouse mentality, the offensive relays. The baton, which has gone from Andrew McCutchen to Neil Walker to Garrett Jones, now rests in Pedro Alvarez's hands. The young third baseman is coming off an 8-for-13, three-homer, seven-RBI series against the Cardinals that underscored his streaky nature. Before teeing off on St. Louis, Alvarez had two homers and five RBIs in his last 30 games. "That performance against the Cardinals speaks for itself: When Pedro shows up like that, he's like the big kid on the playground," Hurdle said. "We continue to look for more consistency from him, but at any point, he can shrink a ballpark." Now the Pirates, with very few exceptions new to this stretch thing, have to keep their jersey collars from shrinking and tightening around their throats. "They might start to feel some different things late in the season," Hurdle admitted. "But it's not like you have to add something at the end. You just need to keep the same mindset, and our guys are starting to understand that. "All that drama ... it's really not necessary." The manager meant the internal drama, which can make players react differently. The external drama is unavoidable. Latest example: The Pirates' dramatic turnaround, from being dragged down by their imploding pitching to getting three shutouts within five days. "It just goes along with baseball," Jones said of the about-face. "It's a long season, and you're going to have ups and downs. For whatever reason, you get in a rut where you can't get a win. But if you keep your head high and stay positive, things turn around a lot quicker than when you don't." "Every time we face the Cardinals, it's a dogfight. They're a great team," Alvarez said. "We can definitely use those last two games as a spark plug for the games to come." So that's where we are. Thirty-two games to drops of champagne -- or drops of tears which, in a cruel way, would also be a victory for Pittsburgh baseball. One game behind St. Louis for the second NL Wild Card spot -- only 3 1/2 behind Atlanta for the No. 1 Wild Card berth. And a schedule that makes both targets attainable: Those 23 games against losing teams all come within the next 26, leading to Madness by the Monongahela. The regular-season curtain will drop Sept. 28-Oct. 3 against the Reds and the Braves in PNC Park, where the house will be rocking for an encore.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.