The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

October 3, 2012

Pirates close curtain on another losing campaign

PITTSBURGH — Don’t blame history. Don’t blame 19 years of bad mojo. Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t want to hear it.

Following a 4-0 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday that left with the Pirates with a 79-83 record that extended their ignominious streak of under-.500 seasons to an even 20 in a row, the straight-talking manager offered no excuses about another promising summer gone awry.

“We needed to win more games,” he said. “Our goal was to win more games.”

Something the Pirates didn’t do enough of down the stretch. Pittsburgh was 62-46 on Aug. 8 before fading to a 17-37 finish.

A lot of the losses looked like their four-hit performance in the finale. The Pirates could muster little offensively against a steady stream of Atlanta pitchers – including the retiring Ben Sheets – and offer little support of starter A.J. Burnett (16-10), who gave up four runs in 5 2⁄3 innings.

“You have to try and take some positives from it,” said centerfield Andrew McCutchen, who had one hit in the finale to finish second behind San Francisco’s Buster Posey for the NL batting title with a .327 average. “Every year is hard to take when you don’t end up where you want to be. Every year is tough.”

This one, perhaps, tougher than most.

The Pirates were the talk of baseball over the summer behind a pitching staff that flourished behind Burnett, who embraced the roll of ace the team desperately needed. He won eight straight decisions in the spring but tailed off over the final two months and couldn’t avoid his fifth loss in his six starts, though he exited to a warm ovation.

“I thought he had an exceptional season,” Hurdle said of Burnett. “He took ownership of the trade, the career, the opportunity to re-ignite himself.”

Something the playoff-bound Braves know a little bit about. Jason Heyward singled twice and scored two runs and Luis Avilan (1-0) picked up the victory but the day belonged to a pair of veterans making one last stand.

Third baseman Chipper Jones provided a dose of magic in his final regular season game while Sheets went down throwing in his last major league appearance.

A large number of Atlanta fans showed up to bid the retirement-bound Jones farewell, though it appeared their only glimpse of Jones would come when he handed the lineup card to umpires.

The 40-year-old planned on sitting out a second straight game to get some rest before the playoffs, but was inserted as a pinch hitter leading off the sixth.

The switch-hitting Jones didn’t waste any time. Standing in as a left-hander against Burnett, Jones slapped the first pitch he saw to right field for a single for the 2,726th and final regular-season hit of his career. Jones stuck around to eventually score on a single by Brian McCann that put Atlanta up 3-0.

“I’d like to thank A.J. for coming right at me,” Jones said with a laugh.

That was more than enough to send the Braves into the postseason on an up note and send Sheets out a winner in his final game.

The four-time All-Star was in the midst of an admirable comeback from a series of arm injuries this summer – going

4-4 with a 3.54 ERA – before heading to the disabled list in August with right shoulder issues.

He announced earlier this week he had no plans on sticking around for the postseason, but eagerly accepted a chance to walk into retirement on his own terms after the Braves opted to rest scheduled starter Tim Hudson.

Sheets had little trouble during his one inning of work, striking out Starling Marte and McCutchen, the final pitch of his career a 96 mph fastball McCutchen couldn’t get his bat on.

“It felt great,” Sheets said. “It was as good as anything I could probably draw up.”

Sheets will watch Atlanta’s postseason run on television and has no plans to try and grab a bullpen job somewhere next year, saying only “dude, I’m good.”

So are the 94-win Braves, who are heading into the postseason with some momentum after a stunning collapse last fall forced them to watch the playoffs on television.

Instead of swooning down the stretch this year, they’ve surged. Atlanta is 20-10 since Sept. 1.

“A little bit different than last year as I recall,” Jones said. “I think we’ll look back on (last) September as a learning experience. No better example of that than the way we played this September.”

Notes: The Pirates drew 2,091, 918 to PNC Park this season, the second-highest total in team history. The average attendance of 26,149 was up from 23,956 in 2011 ... The Braves will start RHP Kris Medlen

(10-1, 1.57 ERA) Friday against Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) ... The Pirates open the 2013 season at home on April 1 against the Chicago Cubs.

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