PITTSBURGH -- The first two games of the series in PNC Park have drawn huge crowds, even in the wake of the Pirates' September slide. No need to scratch your head in confusion, however.The opposition is Cincinnati, and those tickets were snapped up long ago in anticipation of a showdown for the National League Central title. Folks may have been disappointed in the lowered stakes, but certainly not in the heightened drama. And those fans could fantasize: Just imagine if the plot had stayed true, and these games indeed were for the NL Central brass ring. They'd be seeing legends in the making. A night after Reds right-hander Homer Bailey hurled the first no-hitter in Pittsburgh, and against the Pirates, in 41 years, Andrew McCutchen's solo homer in the bottom of the ninth gave the Bucs a 2-1 walk-off thriller. "It definitely felt good," McCutchen said of his opposite-field drive through the heavy air into the right-center seats, "I was feeling better throughout the game, just wasn't getting anything to show for it. To get a hit in that fashion ... definitely good." A.J. Burnett's shaving-cream pie, Pedro Alvarez's Gatorade shower ... they all came back out. For one more evening, the men of winter were still the boys of summer. McCutchen's 31st homer -- snapping an 0-for-16 drought --- gave the Pirates their seventh walk-off win of the season and kept alive their hopes for a .500 record. The Bucs improved to 77-81, with four games remaining. McCutchen's blow off Jonathan Broxton made a winner out of Joel Hanrahan (5-1), who had pitched the ninth. "It was beautiful," manager Clint Hurdle said of the drive on Broxton's 2-2 fastball. "Andrew doesn't give many at-bats away, but some stretches are more challenging. Big swing like that ... got to feel good for him." The glass-is-half-full crowd says McCutchen ended his 0-for-16 slump. The half-empty group says the lull merely reached 1-for-17. Either way, McCutchen's quest for an NL batting title suddenly looms very uphill. And how strange things sometimes are. From the minute the cloud over him -- suspended Melky Cabrera -- was chased, McCutchen began to slump, hitting .176 (6-for-34) since Cabrera took himself out of the running on Sept. 21. His average is down to to .329, eight points behind the .337 mark Buster Posey carries into the Giants' game Sunday in San Diego. Asked whether he is checking Posey's daily progress to see where they stand, McCutchen grinned and said, "Nah ... we can look at that at the end of the season." McCutchen will need to clip off some multi-hit games in the four remaining to crowd Posey. It's in him; he already has 53 multi-hit games this season. Can a big hit like Saturday night's trigger a hot streak? "It could," Hurdle nodded. "Not that his confidence ever wavers, but sparks happen from time to time, little ignitors. This definitely could be the ignitor for him." How double-edged great has the pitching been in this series? Both teams snapped 15-inning scoreless streaks with late runs on Saturday -- and the Bucs were the ones who'd been no-hit the night before. Alex Presley's run-scoring double with one out in the seventh had made it 1-0, breaking up the Pirates' longest scoreless game of the season. That's right, not until Game No. 158 had one of their games remained 0-0 into the bottom of the seventh. Presley's double scored Chase d'Arnaud, the pinch-runner at third for Clint Barmes, who had begun the inning with a single off Jose Arredondo and went to second on an errant pickoff throw by the pitcher before moving to third on Brock Holt's sacrifice bunt. The Reds came right back in the eighth against Jason Grilli, tying it at 1 on Scott Rolen's two-out RBI single. The entertaining duel was witnessed by 38,623, as PNC Park's 17th sellout of the season raised season attendance to 2,007,753. Sunday's annual Fan Appreciation Day couldn't have been better timed: It will come the day after the Pirates crossed the two-million mark in season attendance for only the fourth time in the club's long history. The bullpens took over after Pirates rookie Kyle McPherson and Reds righty Mike Leake pitched to a scoreless standoff through six innings. McPherson faced an immediate jam. The Reds' first two batters reached base on singles, and moved into scoring position on Joey Votto's grounder to first. But Rolen's popup and Jay Bruce's grounder -- hard, up the middle, but to Barmes positioned behind the bag -- doused the threat. McPherson visibly fed off that escape. He began racking up first-pitch strikes, always a leading indicator of being in control. And he didn't allow another hit until Leake, renowned as a great hitting pitcher, doubled into the North Side Notch with two outs in the fifth. His only reward for six shutout innings, however, was the no-decision. While McPherson was blanking the Reds on four hits, with one walk and five strikeouts, Leake was doing the same to the Pirates. Only the Reds right-hander's walks and strikeouts differed, as he had three of each. That was McPherson's tangible reward, that is. The emotional take was far bigger, following two starts in which he had gone 4 1/3 innings each. "It's big. Definitely a huge step forward," he said of going into the offseason with such a last-start performance. "I've head some shaky starts, not even getting through the fifth, so I definitely got a boost of confidence from it.
"I look forward to next year. I hope I turned some heads."
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.