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Wanted to cheer more for the Bucs

Commentary

October 7, 2012
By John Hartsock (jhartsock@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

Late last October, while making a visit to Altoona to speak to Pirates fans at the UVA Club, Clint Hurdle spoke eloquently, and persuasively, about the lessons that the Bucs had learned in his first season as their manager.

The 2011 season had held promise through July, when the overachieving Pirates had won 51 of their first 95 games and had earned national acclaim as Major League Baseball's surprise story before the improbable ride came crashing to a halt.

Those young Bucs were in uncharted waters as temporary leaders in the National League Central Division pennant race, and though August and September brought a 21-46 slide and a 90-loss season - the Pirates' modern American sports record 19th losing season in a row - the overall feeling surrounding the club was still a positive one.

Hurdle emphasized how the Pirates had recognized that a full major league season involved many twists and turns, and that the players realized the need to finish their business down the stretch run in the future. They'd taken their lumps in 2011, certainly, but they were better for the experience.

When the same scenario, rife with similar opportunities, unfolded again in 2012, the Pirates appeared to be battle-tested and immune from having the same misfortune befall them two years in a row.

Yet, like reliving a bad dream, the Pirates did experience another late-summer collapse in 2012, and there appear to be few silver linings this time.

Everything that had gone so splendidly in June and July again went terribly awry in August and September. The Pirates' management, players and fans will spend the offseason pondering how, and why.

How did a team that had boasted one of baseball's best records - 63-47 on Aug. 8 -- plummet into a National League-worst winning percentage of .308 for the remainder of the season, winning just 16 of its last 52 games, to wind up with a 79-83 record and extend that onerous streak of consecutive losing seasons to a full two decades?

Why did a team that had been permitted to print playoff tickets as late as August 20 fall quickly and completely out of the National League Central Division title hunt, dropping from 2 games behind division champ Cincinnati on Aug. 9 to nine full games behind the Reds just 18 days later?

How did a team whose hopes were energized by the addition of a second wild-card playoff position in the major leagues this year become such a non-player in that wild card race so quickly during a lost September in which it won just seven of 28 games?

How did a seemingly solid pitching staff on which righthander James McDonald was a strong all-star candidate in July implode in August and September, as McDonald ended his season with a swollen earned run average and a seat in the bullpen?

Why did the Pirates' bullpen - which had been one of the team's strengths for the first four months - slip in the final two months, rendering closer Joel Hanrahan a non-entity for save situations?

How did centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who was torching the National League batting race with a .373 average in early August, see that average drop 46 points over the last two months?

How did Hurdle go from a very strong National League Manager of the Year candidate in late July to hearing about the Pirates' upper management fending off negative public speculation about his future with the club in mid-September?

The malaise that surrounded the Pirates over the season's final seven weeks seemed to encompass just about everybody.

And even though a few players enjoyed banner seasons, if the pitching doesn't come together again like it did in the first half of this season, the overall problem may not be quite so imminently fixable.

The Pirates will start the 2013 season with a host of demons to exorcise. After two consecutive late-summer swoons, the team's fan base - not to mention its players - has to wonder if it's just plain snakebitten. It might be awhile before another dynamite first half excites anybody.

Though the Pirates finished this season with three players - McCutchen (31 homers, 96 runs batted in, second in the National League with a .327 average), third baseman Pedro Alvarez (30 homers, 85 RBIs) and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones (27 homers, 86 RBIs) - having hit 25 or more homers, the offense discernibly lacked the formidable pop in the final six weeks that it showed off in June, when the Pirates crashed 39 homers and tied a club record for homers in a month that was set by the 1975 squad. This year's Pirates did finish the year with 170 homers, second only to the 1999 club's 171 in team history.

The pitching staff, as has seemingly been the case for the past decade, will again enter next season in a state of flux. Righthander A.J. Burnett, picked up from the New York Yankees last offseason, rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh this summer, winning 16 games - the most by a Pirate since lefty John Smiley won 20 way back in 1991. But even Burnett tailed off a bit in the second half, going just 6-8 after the all-star break.

Veteran lefthander Erik Bedard didn't make it through his first season in Pittsburgh, losing 14 games and getting his walking papers from the Bucs in mid-August.

And what of McDonald? He pitched as poorly in the second half of the season (3-5, 7.52 earned run average) as he pitched superbly in the first half (9-3, 2.37 ERA), calling into question his future with the club.

Righthander Charlie Morton, who had enjoyed a bounce-back year in 2011, saw his season shut down this year in May due to shoulder inflammation. Another righty who the Pirates are counting on, Jeff Karstens, missed sizeable chunks of this season with shoulder and hip problems.

Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriquez, picked up from Houston before the trade deadline, turned in generally solid work for the Pirates, but righty Kevin Correia - a double-figure winner in both of the past two seasons - will be a free agent and may not be re-signed.

A full season of Starling Marte - who won an Eastern League batting championship with the Curve in 2011 - will add punch, speed and athleticism in the outfield, but the struggles of Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and newcomer Travis Snider with the bat have created question marks there.

Pittsburgh native Neil Walker (14 homers, 69 RBIs, .280 average) emerged as one of the National League's best second basemen in his second full season with the Pirates this year, but a herniated disk in his back caused him to miss most of the last six weeks of the season. Will that become a chronic condition, or one from which Walker can bounce back smoothly in 2013?

Maybe the Pirates weren't nearly as good as what they showed during the first four months of this season. But it's also the hope of everybody who has suffered right along with them for the past two decades that they're not nearly as bad as the team that was on the field for the last two months of the last two seasons.

(John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com)

 
 

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