PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Kid has one more chance to leave 'em cheering before leaving town.
Whatever happens Monday afternoon at PNC Park, Neil Walker and the Bucs will be departing following Game 4 of the National League Division Series. They just don't know where: Either to St. Louis, for Wednesday's climactic Game 5 (8 p.m. ET on TBS); or to Los Angeles, for the beginning of the NL Championship Series on Friday.
Whatever the destination, Walker hopes to leave his collar behind. The second baseman was the Pirates' only starter without an NLDS hit, having gone 0-for-13 in the first three games.
Yet Walker was one of the most upbeat players in the Pirates' clubhouse following Sunday's game, for a couple of reasons. Despite his 0-for-4 day, the Bucs' 5-3 win put them on the verge of advancing. And as a celebrated streak hitter -- hot or cold -- Walker knew it was coming.
Walker had blazed to the regular-season wire, hitting .324 with six home runs and eight RBIs in the last nine games. He kept it up with a 2-for-5 effort in the NL Wild Card Game victory over Cincinnati.
But St. Louis pitching has thus far thrown a blanket over Walker, making the necessary adjustments after he had lit up the Cardinals for 18 hits during the season -- his most against any team.
"The numbers don't matter any more," manager Clint Hurdle said, meaning cumulative stats become irrelevant in October. "We're all in for what we're trying to get done. When [Walker] gets rolling, he adds depth to our offense. And we know he's capable of doing that. He's fought through challenges all season, for a couple of seasons now."
Pirates trust in good doctor to revamp arms
PITTSBURGH -- In the Oz of baseball success, 90 percent of the reasons contributing to a team's breakthrough are behind the curtain. In the case of the Pirates, the lead wizard is Dr. Jim Benedict.
Benedict isn't a medical doctor, only a mound doctor. A special assistant to Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington, Benedict takes patients sent to him by the Bucs and cures them.
Benedict stays off the main stage, spending most of his time in Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., and performing most of his magic during Spring Training. "Magic" may come off as too strong a word, but Benedict's work with pitchers identified by Huntington as good bounce-back candidates has profoundly impacted the Bucs.
Half of the Pirates' top-notch postseason pitching staff consists of pitchers whose careers were on life support elsewhere, then came here to be reborn. They did not arrive together, but now pull together.
"One of Neal's great strengths is evaluating pitchers," manager Clint Hurdle said. "After the selection and acquisition process, we've got a program as good as anybody's, with Benedict and [pitching coordinator] Scott Mitchell. But at the end of the day, the pitchers deserve a lot of the credit for making the transition."
The Bucs' Last-Chance Saloon (record in last full season before arriving in Pittsburgh; 2013 ledger):
• A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15 ERA; 10-11, 3.30)
• Francisco Liriano (6-12, 5.34; 16-8, 3.02)
• Jason Grilli (2-3, one save, 5.32; 33 saves, 2.70)
• Mark Melancon (0-2, one save, 6.20; 3-2, 16 saves, 1.39)
• Jeanmar Gomez (5-8, 5.96; 3-0, 3.35)
PNC Park, as a pitcher-friendly yard, may have played a role in those dramatic turnarounds, but that's a factor often overplayed, since half of the schedule unfolds elsewhere. More significantly, pitchers at the end of the road have come to Pittsburgh and found it paved with yellow bricks.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with me," Hurdle said, deferring on the Major League level to pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas. "It's got everything to do with those men and the pitchers themselves."
First number, last word
0: Total home runs hit by the Cardinals this season in 11 games and 99 innings at PNC Park -- until Carlos Beltran connected in the eighth inning of Sunday's Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
"Twelve seasons, first postseason appearance: I'm trying to soak it all in, and at the same time, stay focused. You look at the crowd and you get lost in the energy and the atmosphere. Just having a heck of a time. Trying to have fun and get one [ring]." -- Marlon Byrd, a baseball lifer, who has been delivering for the Pirates, on another kind of deliverance
• Entering Monday's game, Andrew McCutchen was batting .538 (7-for-13) through his first four career postseason games, with an on-base percentage of .667 (12-for-18).
• A recurring regular-season theme was how tight the Pirates were staying to the Cardinals in the National League Central race despite the disparity in the teams' average with runners in scoring position (St. Louis' .330 to Pittsburgh's .229).
Those numbers turned around in the first three NLDS games: The Pirates were 6-for-18 (.333) and the Cardinals 3-for-20 (.150).
• The Shark Tank, apparently, is not the only nickname for the Pirates' bullpen.
"Some of the guys down there have been calling it 'The Bullpen of Failed Starters,'" said Hurdle.
Mark Melancon is the only one of the seven relievers who was not a starting pitcher at the outset of his career.
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.