PITTSBURGH - No single player epitomizes the plight of the Pirates from terrible to terrific and their remarkable resiliency more than Pedro Alvarez.
Go back to April 23, 2012, and there was an article that appeared on Baseball America's website when Alvarez was hitting .108 with 16 strikeouts in 37 at-bats through 12 games. The article included the following line, basically the harshest thing a baseball expert could say about a player:
"You could argue that he's the biggest waste of hitting talent in draft history," the magazine's Jim Callis wrote.
Everyone who was heavily critical of Alvarez at that point has turned out to be dead wrong. And that pretty much includes everyone.
"He's matured into a big league superstar this year," Pirates outfielder Garrett Jones said Sunday night.
A short while earlier, Alvarez had delivered a clutch single to drive in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to help the Pirates beat the Cardinals, 5-3, in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
This is a guy who endured incredible scrutiny 18 months ago, with fans and media blasting the Pirates for not sending him back to the minor leagues during his rough start in 2012. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft looked like a massive bust then, but to his credit, he's developed himself into one of the most feared sluggers in baseball.
"He's been a guy that's been criticized very harshly over the last couple years, but he certainly is everything that he can be," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "He's as good as advertised."
Alvarez tied for the NL lead with 36 homers and had 100 RBIs this year, plus he's already hit two long balls in this series to go along with a .429 average.
Baseball, the ultimate sport of failure, will test the character of an athlete unlike any other game. To fail so drastically for a time and be so roundly criticized, only to pick himself up and become the star slugger the Pirates always envisioned, is a great testament to Alvarez's mental toughness.
"That's one of those things, not lose your confidence when things are down," Alvarez said after the game.
Things have been down for the Pirates for the past 20 years, but so many people battled through that great adversity to help bring the franchise to where it is today, one game away from the NL Championship Series.
They wouldn't be here had Alvarez not lived up to the enormous expectations.
"It's awesome. He's doing what he knows he's capable of doing," Bucs center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
McCutchen knows a little bit about what Alvarez went through since he, too, was a prized prospect selected in the first round of the draft.
"I always kind of joke about first-rounders and Pedro being a big first-rounder," McCutchen said. "These are the things that are expected out of him being a first-rounder. You're expected to do well."
And if you don't, as Alvarez didn't until beginning with the end of April last year, the criticism is unavoidable.
"Some guys bloom a lot faster than others," McCutchen said. "It took him a little longer than others.
"Honestly, he was kind of rushed to the big leagues because of where he was drafted and the contract that he signed ($6 million). So he had to learn here in the major leagues. If you ask anybody who's played here or anybody who's played the game, it's tough to learn here in the big leagues and make that adjustment. But he's done that, and he's doing an amazing job."
No baseball player becomes successful without being able to compartmentalize, forgetting about one bad at-bat in a hurry and focusing on the next one. Alvarez is still very much a work in progress as an all-around hitter - he batted .233 with a league-leading 186 strikeouts this season - but he has proven he can overcome whatever adversity he's facing by compartmentalizing and coming through with big hits in the clutch.
"That's something that you gain over time and over experience and repetition," Alvarez said. "Everyone tries to be as consistent as possible, but that's one of those things you just learn over time and you just try to play the game pitch to pitch and move on after that pitch is done."
"I've been fortunate to be able to watch him over the past few years," Jones said, "and yeah, he had some struggles. But the struggles just taught him more about the game, more about himself, and it just made him a better player. He needed to go through that and those tough times, and he prevailed."
The same can be said about these Pirates, who seem unfazed any time they encounter difficulties because overcoming adversity is engrained in every fiber of their being.
Time after time the Cardinals came back on them Sunday night, and on each occasion the Bucs dug down deep inside and found a way to answer.
"Certainly, resiliency I think is a very big part of this situation and a big part of this year," Walker said. "The ability to turn the page regardless of how yesterday went or today went, we've been very good at that."
No one more so than Alvarez.