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Pirates, Tribe rebound to get back in business

The Pittsburgh Pirates joined the National League as the “Alleghenies” in 1887. The Cleveland Indians began American League play in 1901 as the “Blues.”

Starting tonight — after 113 years of joint membership — they will be in Major League Baseball’s postseason together for the first time. After earning wild cards, the fates of the Pirates and Indians rest initially in a one-game, winner-take-all showdown.

The Bucs will host the Cincinnati Reds tonight at 8 in the National League Wild Card Game, the first postseason contest ever at picturesque PNC Park (TBS). The Tribe gets its turn in the spotlight Wednesday night at 8 when it hosts the American League game against Tampa Bay, Monday’s tiebreaker winner over Texas.

But don’t let that one-game-or-go-home stuff ruin the celebrations by the teams or their fans. That’s especially true in Pittsburgh, which ended the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in American professional sports this year.

The Pirates finished 94-68 and snapped a string of 20 straight losing seasons that dated to the last of their three straight NL East titles in 1992. The Barry Bonds-Andy Van Slyke era ended, of course, on Sid Bream’s infamous slide home to cap a three-run ninth for Atlanta in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS at old Fulton County Stadium.

The Pirates were feted Monday during a lunchtime rally in cozy Market Square, where a couple of thousand black-and-gold-clad fans cheered for team officials and manager Clint Hurdle.

“It’s a good day,” Hurdle told the crowd. “It just goes to show you that the human heart is the most amazing muscle in the body. We have twisted yours for 21 years. And what you’re feeling out there today is significant and it’s special.”

The Pirates seemed to be closing the gap on a winning season the last couple of years, only to viciously slap their fans back to reality. Last year, for instance, they became the first team in history that was 16 games over .500 in August to finish with a losing record.

They did it by going 16-36 to end 79-83. That came after they finished 2011 with an 18-41 slide to end 72-90.

When they got to spring training this year, the real goal was simply 82 wins. End the streak and then worry about contention.

“I was a part of it. It was all we heard, every day,” outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a top candidate for NL Most Valuable Player, said last week. “You get sick and tired of hearing it.”

All they heard most of this year was wild cheers until the fan base spent a few minutes holding its collective breath Monday, when McCutchen took a glancing blow to the face from a line drive during batting practice at a team workout in PNC.

It had Pirates fans on Twitter in a tizzy until McCutchen tweeted himself from @TheCutch22 to his more than 204,000 followers, “The ball that hit me will be out for the remainder of the postseason with 5 ripped seams and a bruised ego.”

Just another challenge pushed aside this year by the Bucs. In facing all comers, they have ridden the all-around beauty at the plate and in the outfield of McCutchen, the power of third baseman Pedro Alvarez (36 homers) and a madcap, character-filled bullpen called the “Shark Tank,” to one of their best seasons ever.

The Shark Tank was so dubbed for the way it circles hitters and attacks. There is now a real aquarium with some real sharks in the Pirates’ clubhouse. If the Pirates go deep into October, it could cut its place into Pittsburgh lore like The Family or the Lumber Company.

The Pirates brilliantly added to their team with veterans like catcher Russell Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano, who will start tonight against Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto. Liriano went 16-8 overall with 163 strikeouts in 161 innings — and was 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park.

And the Pirates have a big psychological edge tonight, too. They just completed a three-game sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati and the Reds are worried about star second baseman and ex-Bison Brandon Phillips, who fouled a ball off his leg Saturday and has been hobbled since.

Draft and develop

This year’s final standings were a tribute to the fact that small-market teams who draft, develop and add in the right veteran mix can outdo the big boys.

In addition to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Cincinnati, there was contending baseball played deep into September in places like Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Baltimore.

For all their might, the Yankees have won the World Series just once (2009) in the last 13 seasons. The Dodgers, just now emerging with wallets open from a dark period under owner Frank McCourt, haven’t even made the Fall Classic since 1988.

The Indians, who have been out of the postseason since 2007 and out of the World Series since 1997, have become a labor of love for first-year manager Terry Francona. The veteran manager was so burned by the tire fire that was the Red Sox of September 2011 that he needed to take a year off in the ESPN booth before taking the Tribe job last winter.

You’ll remember Boston’s 7-20 collapse to close ’11, which left them out of the playoffs — and Francona out of a job — was punctuated by a searing Boston Globe expose two weeks later. It revealed the fractured clubhouse atmosphere was tarnished by players munching on fried chicken and drinking during games.

The Indians of this September have been the complete opposite of that. They won their last 10 games, becoming the first team since the 1971 Orioles to enter the playoffs on a double-digit winning streak. They went from 68-94 to 92-70 in one year, tying the franchise record for improvement.

And Francona poked fun at himself at a news conference Monday in Progressive Field, when he gave this comeback about the secret to the late-season surge — “We stayed away from chicken and beer.”

Soft schedule fuels Tribe

The real secret, however, was the schedule. The Indians mopped up on patsies down the stretch when they basically had to win every game. Cleveland finished the season a staggering 56-18 against teams that were below .500 while going just 36-52 against winning clubs.

It gives you the idea the Indians may not be long for October, be it Wednesday or a potential division series against Francona’s old team, the Red Sox.

The Tribe finished the season against the White Sox, Astros and Twins — who combined to go 4-26 in their last 30 games. They went just 4-15 against the Tigers, the reason they lost the AL Central by one game. But veteran outfielder Nick Swisher, who has a World Series ring from the 2009 Yankees, doesn’t want to hear any of that.

“If everybody feels that way, make it an even schedule,” Swisher said. “Let everybody play everybody the same amount of times so no one can complain about it. You would like to think that a lot of people would be excited for an organization like us.

“We’re rejuvenated, we got ourselves a new thing. If people want to hate on us for the last part of the schedule, we can’t control that. We don’t do the scheduling. … I don’t think anybody on the planet thought the Tribe would be where we are right now.”

Want more Progressive thinking? The sellout crowd Wednesday will see standout rookie Danny Salazar — who opened the season at Double-A Akron — start their first game of the postseason.

Favorites await

While the Pirates and Indians are clear feel-good stories, prevailing wisdom doesn’t favor them.

The Red Sox, led by ex-Bison John Farrell and bench coach/Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo, quickly moved past Bobby Valentine’s one-year disaster to the best record in the American League and will be tough opposition for the wild-card survivor.

The defending AL champion Tigers will meet the Athletics in the first round for the second straight year. The hope is they can ride their starting pitching back to the World Series and a chance to avenge last year’s flameout against the Giants.

It will be tough against an Oakland team that won 96 games overall and went 52-29 at home. The Braves had the best home record in the game (56-25) and will be formidable opposition for the Dodgers in the one National League division series matchup that’s locked in.

At 97-65, the Cardinals had the best record in the NL and await the Pirates-Reds winner. St. Louis was 9-10 against Pittsburgh and 11-8 against Cincinnati.