The Pittsburgh Pirates endured the franchise’s 20th consecutive losing season, but this summer was different in so many ways.
Sure, the late-season collapse mirrored 2011’s disappointing fizzle.
But at one point, the Bucs and their devoted fans were talking postseason, as in the extra wild card spot added for 2012. In June and July there even were discussions about a potential division crown – at least until the Cincinnati Reds scorched the NL Central.
“It puts a chip on our shoulder for sure,” said Pirates catcher Michael McKenry, better known as “The Fort” to the hundreds of fans lining The Galleria for the arrival of the Pirates Caravan on Tuesday night.
“We wanted to finish out on top, going into the playoffs,” McKenry said. “The best thing we can do is learn from it, grow, move forward and try to forget about it. If we dwell on the past, we’re never going to conquer the future. We want to push forward, continue to grow and be the team we want to be.
“I think we can win at any moment,” he added. “I think next year is going to be a huge year for us. I think we can do some great things, and I really believe we’re going to.”
The Pirates were 64-48 on Aug. 8. At 16 games above .500, those who had followed the team through two decades of lean times had high hopes the losing streak soon would end.
But a 15-35 mark in the final 50 games led to a 79-83 record.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates adopted the slogan “Finish,” this wasn’t exactly what the team had in mind.
Still, Pirates fans believe. Those near the back of the line in Richland Township waited hours to see McKenry, left fielder Starling Marte, outfielder Jose Tabata, third base coach Nick Leyva and Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk.
“This is the first day of the Caravan and the crowds have been tremendous,” Walk said, while introducing a brief season highlight video and individual video montages of McKenry, Marte, Tabata and Leyva.
Walk said those lines reveal a lot about how much the Pirates accomplished last summer despite extending the record losing streak to 20 years.
“It was very disappointing, let’s not kid anybody, in September,” Walk said. “But they were playing for something – the postseason. That’s something they haven’t done in a long time.”
Marte, through translator Leyva, said the Bucs must build on the positives from 2012.
“He said he can’t control a lot of things but the thing he can control and we can control is that we go out and give it 100 percent at all times,” Leyva said after Marte was asked how the Bucs might take another step forward. “When we take the field after the national anthem, and after that first pitch is thrown, we give it our all. If we go out and give it our all at all times, we’ll be fine.”
The Pirates’ 79 wins tied the 1997 team for the most victories during the 20-season losing streak (1993 through 2012).
That total also represented a seven-game improvement over 2011, and 22 wins better than 2010.
“We were relatively young, so to speak,” McKenry said. “We’re a year older, a year wiser. We have an opportunity to go out and just play the game we know how to play.
“We’ll try not to put extra pressure on ourselves. The high expectations, we need to just wash them away and go out and play the game we know how to play.”
The Pirates added veteran catcher Russell Martin with a two-year, $17-million deal late last month.
On Monday, the Bucs retained a key part of their bullpen by reaching a two-year deal with Jason Grilli.
With promising players such as all-star Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones in the order, the Pirates have the potential to better last season’s numbers, which included 170 home runs (fourth best in the NL) and 4.02 runs a game (10th best).
Marte added star power as a much-anticipated addition to the major league lineup in Houston in late July.
The rookie left fielder smacked a home run on the first pitch he saw, becoming the first Pirate to homer in his first at-bat in 51 years and the 28th player in major league history to go deep on the first pitch of his career.
“He’s hoping to be able to impress enough to play up here on a regular basis,” Leyva said. “He’s ready to help this ballclub.”
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