ST. LOUIS, MO - Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirates rounds the bases after hitting the game-winning home run against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The Pirates won a 19-inning game just over a year after they lost an infamous 19-inning game. This doesn't mean anything, unless it means everything.
There is no symmetry in baseball. There isn't a yin and yang to the good things, the bad things, and the events from day to day, year to year. Just because the Yankees have 27 championships, that doesn't mean the Red Sox are suddenly going to win the next 20 World Series to make things nice and tidy. David Price isn't going to pitch a perfect game against the Mariners to even up the tally.
When you see something that qualifies as a pattern -- say, a season series in which each team gets a sweep at home -- your brain makes you pay attention because that's how it's wired. But there is no neat, orderly path for baseball to follow. There is no symmetry in baseball. Say it in your best Tom Hanks impression.
Then you see this:
2011: A surprising, contending Pirates team plays a 19-inning game in the second-half of the season. They lose on a blown call. The season goes in the toilet soon after.
2012: A surprising, contending Pirates team plays a 19-inning game in the second-half of the season. They win on a home run. The season ...
You want to fill in the blanks. Your neurons are firing, telling you exactly how that last sentence should end. That's not how baseball works, so you'll fight against it. It's a coincidence, and it's sorta neat, but that's not how baseball works.
But it should be, dammit.
The Jerry Meals game wasn't wholly responsible for the Pirates' 2011 collapse -- you don't get from 53-47 to 72-90 without an oil tanker filled with bad baseball -- but it's the perfect demarcation line. The Pirates entered that July 25 game tied for first place and six games over .500.
They lost 12 of their next 13 games, and in two weeks, they were 10 games back. From tied for first to 10 games back in thirteen calendar days, starting with a 19-inning game that ended on a blown call. That's like a Pirates self-help video that you'd order from an infomercial in Hell. It was just so danged Pirates.
And it would have been pretty danged Pirates for them to lose a series in St. Louis down the stretch. The Pirates hadn't won a series since playing against the Cubs at the end of July, and they were struggling, losing six of eight before traveling to St. Louis. The Cardinals were supposed to be good. They were supposed to be much better than the Pirates -- maybe 20 or 30 games better, according to some preseason predictions. The Pirates losing another 19-inning game, this time to the Cardinals, would have been a very graceful way for the Pirates to announce they were the same ol' team.
Your definition of graceful may vary, but it would have made sense, at least. It was something your brain could process, something expected. The Cardinals win World Series on two-strike, two-out, two-run triples. The Pirates lose every year, turning it into something of an art form. The Pirates still would have been tied with the Cardinals for the Wild Card, and there still would have been a lot of season left, but a loss on Sunday would have felt like an elimination game. Maybe not to the players and die-hard fans, but certainly to baseball fans around the league. Pirates gonna Pirate, and here comes the losing streak.
Instead, they ... won? And they won on a home run from the player who was supposed to be a middle-of-the-order cornerstone in the first place. Pedro Alvarez has looked more like a metaphor and cautionary tale over the last two seasons, so he'll do as the bellwether of the Pirates' fate.
This doesn't mean anything. It's a neat coincidence. The 19-inning game from 2011 has nothing to do with the 19-inning game in 2012. And that whole "that's so Pirates" narrative up there? Hokum. There have certainly been organizational problems over the last two decades, but the whole smoldering mess was overseen by different GMs and owners, and they've built rosters with hundreds of different players. There isn't some sort of toxic mold on the parrot costume that makes people suck. It's been a long, miserable stretch, and there have been thousands of reasons for it. "Pirates being the Pirates" isn't one of those reasons.
But if the Pirates pull this off, if they end up as one of the five teams representing the National League in the playoffs, your brain will keep coming back to Sunday's game. It was a turning point and a statement game. Not just for the season, but for the franchise. You know that sounds silly. You know that's not how baseball works. But your brain won't stop categorizing the 19-inning games as things of profound significance.
Let it. That's not how baseball works, but it's probably how baseball should work. The Pirates' season was flushed after a blown call and some awful baseball last year. The Pirates' season is back on track after a welcome home run and some good baseball this year. It's a good story. Let your brain do the talking. This means something.