The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 4, 2012

Late swoon mars Pirates’ season

PITTSBURGH — This time, the Pittsburgh Pirates never saw it coming.

Not in June, when their slumbering offense erupted behind the bats of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Not in July, when they moved into a tie for first place in the National League Central while turning an obscure movie reference into a mild cultural phenomenon.

Not even in August, when a 19-inning victory over St. Louis served as a bit of karmic justice after that fateful night in Atlanta in 2011 when a botched safe call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals seemed to turn a once-promising season into just another 90-loss campaign to stack next to all the rest.

Nope, this time there was no moment when things went awry. Instead, the Pirates unraveled slowly and steadily over the final seven weeks, somehow turning a 16-game cushion over the .500 mark in early August into a 79-83 finish and a record 20th straight losing season.

The Streak lives on  – again.

“I understand we’re under a pretty big microscope and everybody wants to try and figure out what happened,” reliever Jason Grilli said. “Well, it’s basically in the beginning we played good. The second half we didn’t. End of story.”

One that’s become all too familiar for baseball’s most beleaguered franchise. Only this time it felt different. The Pirates vowed they’d learned their lessons after their freefall over the last two months of the 2011 season. They printed t-shirts with the words “finish” splashed across the front. They signed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to a lucrative contract extension and traded for A.J. Burnett to give the pitching staff the ace it desperately needed.

Led by Burnett’s fierce competitiveness, the Pirates survived an April and May in which the offense all but disappeared then took off in June when McCutchen developed into an MVP candidate and Alvarez became the slugger management envisioned when Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft.

The team even adopted a catchphrase and a hand symbol – “Zoltan” – from the movie “Dude, Where’s My Car?” that led to a cottage industry of t-shirts and had everyone from politicians to elderly fans flashing the “Z.”

By the final week of the season, the “Z” had been replaced by “L” after “L.”

McCutchen cooled off. Burnett struggled at times. Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, acquired at the trade deadline to give the offense some pop, fizzled. Starter James McDonald’s brilliant first half vanished into a miserable post-All Star break funk that had him in the bullpen by September. Second baseman Neil Walker’s balky back robbed the lineup of perhaps its steadiest performer.

Taken at face value, the Pirates’ best season in 20 years would be seen as a sign of progress. This is the same club that was a major league worst 57-105 two years ago.

Yet after flirting with heights not seen since Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium two decades ago, Walker’s aftertaste of “the Collapse 2” will linger well into the offseason.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to find ways to improve over the course of six months,” said Walker, a Pittsburgh native. “From personnel, coaching, the front office, everybody has to when the tough times come, get the most out of it.”

If the Pirates want to break through, they don’t really have a choice. There appears to be no major front office shakeup in the offing after team president Frank Coonelly pledged general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle will return next spring.

Getting rid of the organization’s most successful manager since Jim Leyland makes little sense, though Hurdle knows his team needs to learn how to develop the mental toughness required to survive 162 games. The Pirates have gotten good at handling the first 110 or so under his watch. It’s those last 50 that need work.

“I believe we are headed in the right direction, and no, we’re not happy with the finish at all,” he said. “I just know there’s more to do. There’s unfinished business in front of us.”

Though Hurdle insists Pittsburgh’s “street cred” is improving the Pirates are unlikely to make a major roster overhaul in the offseason. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are locks for the rotation. It’s likely closer Joel Hanrahan and his 37 saves will be back. The only real positional concerns are the corner outfield spots – where four players including highly touted Starling Marte are in the mix – and catcher.

Odds are the team that takes the field on April Fool’s Day to open the 2013 season against the Cubs will look an awful lot like the one that slumped toward the dugout after a season-ending 4-0 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, who endured a September collapse of his own with the Braves last fall. Rather than blow things up, the Braves let their young nucleus develop and ended up making the playoffs a year later.

“You give your people a chance to work and hopefully the core is there and hopefully they learn from what they’ve gone through and they take a step forward,” Gonzalez said.

The Pirates believe they took two forward in 2012, only to take one major step back in the final month.

The numbers bear out the optimism. A team that couldn’t hit a lick in April and May finished with 172 homers, fourth-best in the National League. Burnett won the most games by a Pittsburgh right-hander in over 20 years. Alvarez’s 30 home runs were the second-most by a third baseman in team history.

Taken in the context of a full season, McCutchen believes that the Pirates showed progress no matter how bad things got during their September swoon.

“We’re definitely a stronger team,” McCutchen said. “We showed we were stronger through a definite period of time we just weren’t able to hold the lead that we had. It’s something that’s a work in progress ... but every year is hard to take when you don’t end up where you want to be.”

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