Lucky number 19?

Games lasting 19 innings are pretty rare in baseball, so fans take notice when they happen. When they happen to the same franchise in consecutive seasons, each at what could be considered a pivotal point in its season, that’s when I take notice.

On July 26, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates were experiencing unaccustomed success. Not only were they six games over .500, they shared the NL Central lead with the Cardinals. With the first game of a four-game set in Atlanta safely won the previous day, Pittsburgh was looking to maintain the pace in the marathon of the season. What the Pirates got was a marathon of a game. They built a 3-0 lead early, but the Braves rallied to tie it in the third.

And then everyone just stopped scoring runs.

Fifteen and a half innings of goose eggs later, Atlanta mounted a rally in the bottom of the 19th, getting runners to second and third with one out. Scott Proctor hit a grounder to third, and Julio Lugo broke for the plate. Pedro Alvarez gloved it and threw home, Michael McKenry applied the tag, and the majority of witnesses—in person, on TV, and in the myriad replays to come—saw Lugo get put out.

But home plate umpire Jerry Meals formed a majority of one, and he called Lugo safe.

In retrospect, it was the end of the Pirates’ season. It began a 1-12 string that sent Pittsburgh plummeting out of first and below the .500 mark, never to get close to it again that year. They went 19-53 from the “Jerry Meals game” onward. The drought of Pittsburgh futility that began in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS would continue. The Pittsburgh faithful (and faith is what it had to be by this point) would tie the collapse to this one game.

Step forward in time 13 months. On Aug. 19, 2012, the Pittsburgh Pirates were experiencing unaccustomed success. They were 12 games over .500, and while a hot Reds squad was six and a half games in front for the division lead, the new Wild Card system had Pittsburgh in position for postseason play, barely. Should the Cardinals win the rubber game of their weekend series, St. Louis would tie the Bucs, and a Dodgers win would put the Cardinals in the final slot, and Pittsburgh on the outside looking in.

St. Louis drew first blood with two in the fourth. Pittsburgh knotted it up in the visitors’ sixth. And then, for 10 1/2 innings, everyone just stopped scoring runs. The teams traded singletons in the 17th, and the game went on toward its destined 19th. No controversy this time, though. Pedro Alvarez, would-be hero from the last time, homered to push Pittsburgh ahead. Superstar in bloom Andrew McCutchen drove in two insurance runs, and Wandy Rodriguez (wait, wasn’t he supposed to start today?) slammed the door hard.

The coincidence of a 19-inning Pittsburgh game in a heating-up playoff push caught my eye late last evening. To say that it caught the eye of the Pirates and their fans is an understatement. The Pirates’ fansite Bucs Dugout headlined the game recap by asking “Curse of Jerry Meals Vanquished?” Others have observed that this is the first time the Bucs have won a 19-inning game on the road since 1979—the last time they won the World Series. As demoralizing as last year’s defeat was, this win was just as uplifting.

Will this be a mirror-image of history? It’s dangerous to argue that an entire season can pivot on one game in summer, and this kind of “destiny” narrative is a lot easier to see with perfect hindsight than right in the middle of things, when you don’t know the wins and losses to come.

But if Yogi Berra was right and 90 percent of the game is half mental, the Pirates just gained something bigger than one tally in the wins column. They took a game that could have had their team, their whole fanbase, saying “Aw, here we go again,” and flipped it on its head. Instead of a mindset that lends itself all too easily to, well, here we go again, they’ve got an attitude that they’ve broken with the past. And for the Pittsburgh Pirates, that can only be good.

Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. (Was it Yogi who said that, too?) A friend of mine once advised that a good prognosticator is never too specific, so he can’t have his misses hung around his neck. But it’s also true that one solid hit can make your reputation: famed “psychic” Jeane Dixon nailed maybe one prediction in her career, but since it was the Kennedy assassination, she had a guaranteed spot in the National Enquirer for life.

I’m going for it. The Pirates make the playoffs, and I’m giving yesterday’s game all the credit. It may not be an accurate narrative even if they make it, but I’m wagering it’s the one the anecdote writers will be churning out in the years to come.

And when you consider how long it’s been since someone could bet on Pittsburgh and not immediately be carted off to the loony bin—pardon me as I nervously glance over my shoulder—you have to count the Pirates as winners already. Even if it did take 19 innings.

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.

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