Bucs' sweet summer concludes with bitter end
Pirates suffer 20th consecutive losing season despite outstanding play early
The Pirates put their own Dickens spin on the 2012 season: It was the best of times before the worst of times.In a world of Yankees, Tigers and Reds, the Bucs were the ones to lead the Major Leagues in scoring in June and July, any baseball season's formative months. Applying that offensive layer atop a pitching staff that collectively had been one of the big leagues' toughest through May opened up possibilities way beyond the conservative goal of ending 19 consecutive years of losing. Accordingly, Pittsburgh came out of Game No. 108 -- exactly the two-thirds mark of the 162-game schedule -- 16 steps above .500, with a record of 62-46. The Pirates were managing that despite a shallow lineup carried by a few, a team average of .247 and OPS of .713 attesting to the holes. They were finding ways to win games without clutch hits, but with opportunism and fortune that bordered on divine intervention.
It was all enough to earn them a nickname that reflected their upstart abrasive style, the Bad News Bucs.Then they turned into bad news -- lower case and period. They began losing three games for every one they won, spiraling out of the postseason race and into that familiar sub-.500 pit. The bitter 2011 resolution -- those Bucs swooned from contention quicker and deeper -- seemed like a confection compared to this fade. "I came out in the middle of the season and said we weren't going to have the same result, because we had better depth, better players, better leadership," general manager Neal Huntington reflected. "Yet we had the same slide. The first four months were a heck of a lot more fun than the last two months. I wouldn't say it's been more concerning [than 2011] ... losing is losing, and we're all tired of it." Although not as immediate, the 2012 decline also followed the July 31 Trade Deadline. Huntington was busy, and concerns he might have tried to fix something that wasn't broken were confirmed, either as a coincidence or as a consequence. With the Bucs still in stride, Huntington flipped over a large chunk of the roster with moves for Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Chad Qualls and Wandy Rodriguez that cost the Pirates key first-half contributors Brad Lincoln and Casey McGehee. The GM had a couple of motives: Be proactive to prevent a 2011 flashback, and add some players to the smoke-and-mirrors the Bucs often appeared to be using on their way to the top. Scoff all you want at Huntington's references to Sabermetrics, like the one that indicated the Pirates were twice as many games above .500 than where they belonged statistically at the end of July, but even laymen couldn't figure out how they were doing it. As a team, the Pirates were hitting .218 at the end of May, and had scored 147 runs in 50 games during the first two months. In June, they scored as many runs in half as many games; June and July, they poured across 276 runs. But the power-fueled outburst -- the Bucs hit 39 homers in both June and July, more than their combined April-May total (38) -- was a classic smokescreen. It covered up the gradual downturn of the pitching staff that had brilliantly kept the team afloat early, and it camouflaged the team's lack of fundamental skills. Manager Clint Hurdle and his staff hit bull's eyes on some preseason objectives. After a pitch-to-contact staff in 2011 that depended on defensive support, for instance, they wanted a group with more swing-and-miss potential -- and the Pirates wound up setting a franchise record for most strikeouts in a season, led by A.J. Burnett. On some others, they missed horribly. Speed and aggression on the basepaths was expected to make up for the acknowledged lack of lineup depth; the Pirates would run circles around the opposition. The Bucs were successful on lower than 60 percent of their stolen-base attempts, by far the lowest in the Majors. The lack of success even by confirmed speedsters such as Andrew McCutchen and Alex Presley highlighted the need for instruction in this area. The other side of the running game was even poorer. In putting the club together, defense and pitching were emphasized. Overlooked was control of the running game as a component of both; Pittsburgh batteries caught fewer than 10 percent of opponents, who ran more liberally as the season wore on. In fact, considering the 65 stolen bases against them in August-September, one might say the Pirates were literally run out of the race. Yet, consistent with what has been a season of inconsistency, the Pirates hit several statistical peaks, in addition to those record number of strikeouts by their pitchers. While the won-lost record may not have harkened back to the last winning Pirates teams of the early 1990s, several individuals flashed back to that era. Burnett, rescued from the Bronx, emerged as the first Pirates pitcher with at least 16 wins since 1991. Joel Hanrahan, even though his save opportunities dried up in mid-August, was the second closer in club history to post 30-plus saves in consecutive seasons. Pedro Alvarez and McCutchen became the third pair of Pittsburgh teammates to each poke 30-plus homers, joining the 1990 duo of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, and the 2001 tandem of Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez. With Garrett Jones also reaching a new career high in homers, that trio was the second in Pittsburgh history with at least 25, matching the 1966 threesome of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, and Donn Clendenon. McCutchen, with a week to go, was in position to nail down the 26th National League batting title in franchise history. None of that softened the immediate past. But Hurdle could see in it a bright future. "It's not like a bunch of older guys, or guys on the backside of their careers, are doing it," the manager said of that Alvarez-McCutchen cornerstone parlay. "We didn't finish the way we wanted to but -- and I don't try to find moral victory in a lot of things -- I do know we're headed in the right direction. Those are the things you like to see when you're building a ballclub." So that's the sign-off on 2012: "Still under construction."
Record: 79-83, fourth in NL Central Defining moment: The steepest late-season collapse in baseball history -- no team 16 games over .500 at the 110-game mark had ever finished with a losing record -- got its final push on Sept. 10, in Cincinnati. The Bucs had already been sliding, but entered that game with a 72-67 record, still only 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for a Wild Card spot. Wandy Rodriguez took a 3-1 lead and a one-hitter into the bottom of the seventh, but was removed after a weak two-out single by Todd Frazier -- and after 89 pitches. Cincinnati tied it against Jared Hughes, and won it in the 14th against Rick van den Hurk. The Cardinals lost that night. The fight was taken out of the Bucs; they kept losing. What went right: McCutchen's breakout performance gave the team an MVP candidate on the field, and his personality gave it a national identity. ... Burnett confirmed the assessment that he would flourish in the Pittsburgh environment. ... The acquisition of Rodriguez didn't help the team reach the playoffs, but at least it kept it from totally disappearing; he was virtually the only pitcher capable of winning the last six weeks. What went wrong: McCutchen, Alvarez and Jones hit all those homers. Seriously -- the club quickly began to depend on the long ball, and when it wasn't there, there was no offense. The club badly miscalculated in breaking up the bullpen mix that had been so effective in the first half, with Lincoln the long man and Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli and Hanrahan at the end. Many tried, but no one gave the team an effective leadoff man; the Pirates had a collective sub-.300 on-base percentage in the one-hole. In retrospect, the concurrent injuries to Starling Marte (oblique) and Neil Walker (herniated disc) were devastating. Biggest surprise: Grilli became a late-blooming relief stud, giving the club fire both in the clubhouse and on the mound. His 90-plus strikeouts ranked high among MLB relievers, and his combative attitude defined the good Pirates of the first two-thirds. The Bucs were 34-9 in his first 43 appearances.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.