PITTSBURGH -- To help outsiders fathom the euphoria caused by last week's confluence at PNC Park of postseason baseball and a fan base that spent a generation starved for it, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle offered up an elegant measure beyond decibels and turnstiles.
Call it the Concourse Quotient.
The Pirates' wild-card playoff game against Cincinnati, a raucous affair unlike any the 12-year-old ballpark has seen, drew 40,487 people and it's where they weren't that caught Hurdle's eye. They weren't waiting for Primanti Brothers sandwiches or Quaker Steak & Lube wings. They weren't chasing beverages or draining their bladders for more. The walkways were empty because the seats were full.
"I've never been to a sporting event where there weren't lines for food because nobody wanted to leave their seat and miss any action," Hurdle explained. "There were just no lines. Nobody was moving."
Postseason baseball returns Sunday afternoon to the Steel City -- on a bye weekend for its beloved Steelers -- with the city's first playoff series game in 21 years. The Pirates swiped home-field advantage from the Cardinals with Friday's victory to knot the best-of-five National League division series at one game apiece. While another sellout crowd is expected for something never seen before at PNC Park, the Cardinals must face something they've seen far too often there.
Big, noisy crowd or not, the Pirates' big, posh ballpark has been a big pain this season for the Cardinals.
Hurdle doesn't need to coin a new metric because the numbers are blunt enough: The Cardinals lost seven of their 10 games at PNC this summer, did not hit a home run there, and were outscored 38-7 in the losses. Three times in 10 games they failed to score. Greeting them Sunday afternoon will be lefty Francisco Liriano, who went 3-0 against the Cardinals and had a 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts. The counter this iron-city brew of bad matchups, the Cardinals turn to their only starter who mastered PNC Park this season: Joe Kelly. The series hinges here.
"Should be fun," Kelly said.
Kelly sat in the visitors' clubhouse Saturday afternoon following the Cardinals' workout at PNC and scrolled on his phone through movie times. "Gravity" looks good, he explained with his feet up on a table, casually. He looked at home. Unflappable in so many places and so many roles this season, Kelly was involved in all three wins the Cardinals had at PNC. He pitched two scoreless innings of relief during a win in April, and he went 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings as a starter at Pittsburgh.
Hurdle said his team's "unfamiliarity" aided Kelly in his early outings against the Pirates, but so did Kelly's approach. The righty, once labeled by his pitching coach the "Ferrari in the garage" as a long reliever, has evolved as pitcher this season, speeding from a velocity-based pitcher to one who invites contact for quick outs. He did that without losing his assertive tempo.
Kelly called the Pirates an "ultra-aggressive" lineup. It's one reason why the Cardinals chose changeup-firing Michael Wacha over fastball-happy Shelby Miller for Game 4, and one element that has served Kelly well. In his two starts against Pittsburgh, Kelly got 15 outs on the ground and 24 of his 36 total outs without the ball leaving the infield.
"Every start I know I'm learning something, and then with every bullpen what I try to do is refine it," Kelly said. "I think overall as a pitcher, I've improved. I learned so many things this season -- the little something you can see in a swing, how to use that. I think you'll see early on if they have an approach they want to take with me."
Subtract Kelly's two starts, and the rotation had a 6.23 ERA at PNC, and the Cardinals' pitching staff overall had a 4.75 ERA at PNC, the second-highest of the 19 teams to visit.
The Pirates went 13-26 against division foes at home.
"We don't really put a whole lot of stock in it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, dampening his club's struggles at PNC. "Only because we've played in a lot of different parks this year. We've played well on the road. There have been times when this team has played well here in the past. This time of year you throw that stuff out of the window."
That's harder to do when considering why. The Cardinals hit .226 as a team and slugged .275 in 10 games at PNC. Only the Chicago Cubs were worse in the division. The Cardinals visited 18 other parks this season, and hit homers in all but two. The Cardinals were the only team with more than 300 at-bats at PNC this season to not hit a home run.
PNC has one of the largest left fields in baseball and a right-field wall that is 320 feet away but is also 21 feet high, for Roberto Clemente's number.
"There's plenty of righthanded hitters who hit the ball, flip their bat and we catch it at the track if not in front of the track," Hurdle said. "It significantly gets people's attention if they haven't played here. It gets our guys attention as well."
Hurdle described how the wide-open spaces and left-field notch that extends to 410 feet influences how the Pirates pitch lefthanded hitters, too, daring them to take it to the largest part of the field. But it's not just hitting the ball out of the park that is tricky, it's finding a place for hits to land within in its walls. Unlike the Cardinals' outfielders who gave hits away Friday in the Game 2 loss and have at other spacious ballparks this season, the Pirates take hits away with their speed and gloves in the outfield.
As the Pirates built their roster they understand the need "to develop two center fielders to cover that notch area in left field," Hurdle said. Starling Marte roams left and Andrew McCutchen has improved in center. Both are above-average fielders at their positions, and Baseball Info Solutions calculates Marte has saved 20 runs for the Bucs this season.
"It's not like the NBA where every court is the same," Kelly said.
But he can benefit from the ballpark, too, one of the few Cardinals who have.
The fans who stayed in their seats for the wild-card playoff haunted Reds starter Johnny Cueto by repeating his name, mercilessly. A hockey cheer that used to reverberate through the rafters of Mellon Arena as the fans chanted the opposing goalie's name has been relocated to PNC, and it will welcome Kelly tonight at the first sign of trouble. Kell-eee. Kell-eee. Kell-eee. He said it "is going to be electric." Back in college, the Cal Poly fans would chant his name as he pitched to try and rattle him. He egged them on.
It was a much smaller throng, he joked, so it was personal.
This is the postseason.
The stakes are high for the Cardinals who must at least split two games at PNC to force the NLDS back to Busch for a decisive Game 5. If they don't solve PNC at least once, they will still be going home. Just not to play.
(c)2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services