PITTSBURGH — A.J. Burnett calls Pittsburgh Pirates teammate Andrew McCutchen the most humble superstar with whom he has played.
"Just as loose as can be all the time," Burnett said. "He wears his pride on his sleeve when he plays."
When McCutchen gets to the plate, though, he fills another role for the Pirates.
"He's the catalyst," Burnett said. "And he's been the catalyst."
Never more so than Sunday, when McCutchen had two hits and two walks, started three rallies and scored twice to lead the Pirates to a 5-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of a National League division series, moving Pittsburgh to within a victory of its first League Championship series in 21 years.
An All-Star in three of his five big league seasons and a .296 career hitter, McCutchen has toiled in anonymity in front of a half-empty stadium in Pittsburgh for much of his career. But with the Pirates back in the postseason for the first time since Fay Vincent's last year as commissioner, he's getting a chance to introduce himself to a national audience.
The fans at home already know him, though, which is why a PNC Park record crowd of 40,489 serenaded him with chants of "MVP! MVP!" the first time he stepped on the field Sunday.
"It's awesome to hear from our home crowd. But I'm not too focused on that," said McCutchen, whose .317 regular-season average was seventh in the league. "I'm just worried about what I can do to help the ballclub win."
He got started on that in his first at-bat, drawing a two-out walk. Justin Morneau's infield single and a throwing error by shortstop Pete Kozma put runners at second base and third base for Marlon Byrd, who singled to left field to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
After the Cardinals tied it in the fifth inning on Carlos Beltran's two-run single, McCutchen drew a leadoff walk in the sixth and scored the go-ahead run on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Russell Martin.
Beltran tied the score, 3-3, with a home run in the eighth inning, but guess who led off the bottom of the inning for Pittsburgh. This time McCutchen doubled. And though he was retired at third base trying to advance on a ground ball, the rally continued with Pedro Alvarez and Martin delivering run-scoring singles to put the game away.
When it was all over, McCutchen had reached base in all four plate appearances. Four games into his first postseason he's hitting .538 with five walks.
"This is an opportunity, once in a lifetime maybe," he said of the playoff atmosphere. "I'm making the most of it."
And now the catalyst and his teammates have a chance to keep it going. By winning one of their next two games, Monday in Pittsburgh or Wednesday in St. Louis, the Pirates would move on to meet the winner of the Atlanta Braves-Dodgers playoff series with a spot in the World Series on the line.
McCutchen would just as soon wrap up things in Pittsburgh where, he says, baseball has become so hot his dreadlocks no longer get him mistaken for NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
"Let's do it at home," he said.
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