What an incredible ride it’s been for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year.
The Pirates’ season came to an end last night in St. Louis. It wasn’t the finish that the Pirates or their long-suffering fans wanted, as it came in a 6-1 loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League division series.
There are plenty of encouraging signs to be taken from the just-concluded campaign. Not only did the Pirates snap their much talked about 20-year streak of losing seasons, but they did it in impressive fashion. Clint Hurdle’s club won 94 games – 15 more than in 2012.
That was in the regular season. They also won three postseason games, including a one-game wild-card playoff over Central Division rival Cincinnati. And they made a city, a large portion of the commonwealth and an entire fan base fall in love with baseball again.
From the return of the Zoltan to the emergence of the Shark Tank; from the debut of flame-throwing rookie Gerrit Cole to the trade that brought veteran Marlon Byrd’s offensive firepower; from the winning-season-clinching victory in Texas to the incredible postseason atmosphere at PNC Park, the Pirates have given their fans indelible memories.
It certainly didn’t look like that was going to happen a week into the season – not after the Pirates went 1-5 in losing series to the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers. But Pittsburgh quickly turned its season around, taking two of three in Arizona and going 4-0-1 in its next five series.
Near the end of April, the Bucs were in first place in the NL Central.
Buoyed by the season debut of free-agent signing Francisco Liriano, they continued to play well in May. They were 13 games above .500 by the end of the month.
June was even better, with the sensational start by former first-round pick Cole carrying the Pirates to a two-game division lead as the calendar flipped to July.
They had slipped to second place by the All-Star break, but having five players selected to the Midsummer Classic gave the team the kind of validation it had not seen in decades.
When the Pirates stumbled out of the break, losing two straight in Cincinnati, fans wondered if it was the start of the dreaded collapse.
That’s what had happened each of the previous two seasons – the Pirates got their supporters’ hopes up only to play horribly down the stretch and see their championship dreams, postseason hopes and even the desire for a winning season dashed.
Not this time. Not these Bucs.
General Manager Neal Huntington, who had found offseason gems in Liriano and catcher Russell Martin, pulled off a pair of stunning deals after the trade deadline – getting Byrd, Justin Morneau and John Buck for almost nothing.
They were great moves, but it still wasn’t enough to lift the Pirates when they needed it most. Needing just one victory to move to the National League championship series, they could only manage two combined runs in back-to-back losses to the Cardinals.
It was a painful ending to an incredible season, but it was nothing like the heart-wrenching final game of the Pirates’ last playoff appearance. And with the majority of this team returning next year, it shouldn’t take nearly as long for Pittsburgh to get some more playoff memories.
Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/eric_knopsnyder.