Pirates highs & lows of 2013

Highlights and lowlights of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2013 season:

Final regular-season record: 94-68

Notable: 2013 was a watershed year for the Pirates, who posted their first winning season and captured their first National League playoff berth since 1992.

Final NL Central finish: Second place, three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

Final wild-card finish: Top wild-card finisher in the NL, four games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. The two teams met in a NL play-in game Oct. 1, which was won by the Pirates, 6-2, at PNC Park.

Playoff record: 3-3. Qualified for the NL Division series, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Regular-season home record: 50-31

Regular-season road record: 44-37

All-stars: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, starting pitcher Jeff Locke and relievers Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli. Locke did not participate in the July 16 game at the New York Mets’ Citi Field because of a sore back. The Pirates had five all-star nominees for the first time since 1972, when Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Steve Blass and Manny Sanguillen were selected.

Clinching a playoff spot: The Pirates locked up their first playoff berth in 21 years by topping the Chicago Cubs, 2-1, on outfielder Starling Marte’s ninth-inning solo homer Sept. 23 in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. That win was the Pirates’ 90th of the year, and coupled with the Washington Nationals’ 4-3 loss in St. Louis that night, guaranteed the Bucs at least the second wild-card playoff berth in the NL.

Clinching a winning season: The Pirates clinched their first winning season in 21 years with a 1-0 victory over the Texas Rangers Sept. 9 in Arlington, Texas. The victory put the Bucs’ record at 82-61 with 19 games left in the regular season. During their modern American sports record 20-year consecutive losing streak, the Pirates’ high-water mark for victories was only 79 twice (in 1997 and 2012).

Season turning point (division race): The Pirates and Cardinals were tied for first place entering play on Sept. 17 before the Pirates dropped two of three games on a homestand to both the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds to fall two games behind St Louis. The Cardinals increased their lead to three games Sept. 25, when the Pirates lost a game to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Season turning point (top wild card playoff position): The Pirates led the Reds by only one game before sweeping a crucial three-game series in Cincinnati Sept. 27-29.

Season turning point (second wild card playoff position): The Pirates got a big leg up on a playoff berth with a strong first-half showing in which they won 51 of their first 81 games for a major league-best .630 winning percentage. Even though they tailed off to 43-38 in the second half of the season, a playoff berth of some kind was a virtual certainty for the Pirates by Sept. 1, when they held an 11-game cushion in the wild-card race.

Season turning point (winning season): The Pirates put a large down payment on a winning season by entering the All-Star break in mid-July with a 56-37 record.

Biggest acquisitions (inseason): After declining to make a move prior to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Pirates made two big transactions in late August to beef up their starting lineup for the stretch run. On Aug. 27, the Bucs acquired veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd and veteran catcher John Buck from the New York Mets in exchange for two young prospects. Byrd came to the Pirates after hitting 21 home runs and driving in 71 runs with the Mets, while Buck clubbed 15 homers. On Aug. 31, just before the trade deadline for postseason eligibility, the Pirates picked up first baseman Justin Morneau from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for outfielder Alex Presley. Morneau was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player back in 2006.

Biggest acquisitions (offseason): There were three great ones. Veteran catcher Russell Martin was the Pirates’ unsung hero this year after being acquired as a free agent from the New York Yankees. Right-handed reliever Melancon was a steal after being acquired from Boston in the Joel Hanrahan trade last winter. Melancon was the glue to the Pirates’ outstanding bullpen, serving as a shut-down eighth-inning setup man for closer Grilli until late July, then stepping into the closer’s role and saving 14 games in 17 opportunities from July 21 to Sept. 20 after an injury had sidelined Grilli for six weeks. Veteran left-handed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, a free-agent acquisition from the Chicago White Sox last offseason, led the Pirates’ staff in regular-season wins (16), while posting a 3.02 earned run average in 26 starts and tossing two complete games.

Biggest sparkplug: Marte led off in the Pirates’ batting order for most of the season and was among the NL leaders in both triples (10) and stolen bases (41).

Biggest statistic(s): The Pirates’ pitching staff boasted the NL’s top earned run average throughout much of the regular season and was the biggest single factor in the club’s first-half success. The Pirates finished the season third in the NL in overall pitching ERA with a 3.26, including a 2.89 earned run average by the bullpen that ranked the Bucs second in the league.

Hidden statistic: The Pirates were 73-5 during the regular season when entering the eighth inning of games with a lead.

Interesting statistic: An amazing testament to the Pirates’ dramatic improvement under third-year manager Clint Hurdle: This year’s Pirates reached the All-Star break with 56 wins and notched their 57th victory of the season July 21 in Cincinnati. Just three years ago, in 2010, the Bucs won only 57 games all season in John Russell’s final year as manager.

Best stretch: The Pirates won 16 of 21 games between June 7 and June 30 and sported Major League Baseball’s best record for several weeks through the middle of the season.

Worst stretch(es): The Pirates dropped five of six games four times – to open the season April 1-7, from May 31-June 5, from August 9-15 and from Sept. 16-20.

Biggest question mark entering the offseason: Can the Pirates make this season’s success a continuing trend?

Best reason to watch this year’s Pirates: The 2013 Pirates offered an exciting brand of baseball from the beginning of the season right through to the end.

Best reason to tune out: None.

Biggest game: None was bigger than the fifth and deciding game of the NL Division Series, in which the Cardinals prevailed, 6-1 before a raucous sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.

Longest winning streaks: A nine-game streak that started June 20 in Cincinnati and ran through June 30, when the Pirates completed a three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park with a 2-1, 14-inning win at PNC Park. After defeating the Reds, 5-2, in the finale of a four-game series, the Pirates swept the Los Angeles Angels in three games and the Seattle Mariners in two games on the road before sweeping the Brewers.

Longest losing streaks: The Pirates had four losing streaks of four games apiece – April 4-7, July 6-9, Aug. 9-13 and Sept. 4-8.

How sweep it is: At PNC Park, the Pirates swept a three-game series from the Cincinnati Reds April 12-14, a three-game series from the Chicago Cubs May 21-23, a two-game series with the Detroit Tigers May 29-30, a three-game series from the Milwaukee Brewers June 28-30 and a three-game series from the Miami Marlins Aug. 6-8. On the road, the Pirates swept a three-game series from the Los Angeles Angels June 21-23 and followed that with a two-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners June 26-27. They also swept a three-game series from the Texas Rangers Sept. 9-11 and a three-game series from the Reds in Cincinnati Sept. 27-29 that catapulted the Pirates into the top wild-card playoff position.

Most regular-season success against: Milwaukee (12-7), Chicago Cubs (12-7), Cincinnati (11-8) and the New York Mets (5-2). The Bucs also had their best season against AL competition ever, going 15-5 against a total of six different teams, including a 9-1 record on the road.

Least regular-season success against: 2-4 against both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado.

Best regular-season home record(s): 7-3 against St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee.

Worst regular-season home record: 1-3 against the San Diego Padres.

Best regular-season road record(s): 3-0 against both the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, and 3-1 at Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Mets.

Worst regular-season road record(s): 3-6 at St. Louis and 0-3 at Dodger Stadium, Atlanta and Colorado. The Pirates have now lost nine straight over the past three seasons at Dodger Stadium, and 19 of their last 23 there since 2006.

Best homestand: The Pirates went 9-2 on an 11-game homestand July 29-Aug. 8 that started with four wins in five games against St. Louis, followed by two wins in three games against Colorado and a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins.

Worst homestand: The Pirates’ 5-6 showing on their final regular-season homestand ended with three losses in four games to San Diego and two losses in three games to Cincinnati.

Best road trip: The Pirates went 7-2 on a nine-game trip to Cincinnati, Anaheim and Seattle in June, winning the final six games on the trip and sweeping a three-game series from the Angels and a two-game series from the Mariners.

Worst road trip: The Bucs were 1-5 in a two-city trip to Colorado (0-3) and St. Louis (1-2) in August.

Best month: The Bucs were 19-9 in May, including a 12-6 record at home and a 7-3 mark on the road. June was good, too, producing 17 wins in 26 games, including the nine-game winning streak to close the month.

Worst month: The Pirates were only 14-14 in August – their only non-winning month of the season.

Most games over .500: The Pirates’ high-water mark was 26 games over .500 (70-44) after the three-game sweep of Miami at PNC Park in early August.

Most games under .500: After starting the season with a 2-6 record, the Pirates bounced back to win 13 of their next 19 games and close April with a 15-12 mark.

Highest spot in division standings: First place, with a four-game lead over St. Louis, on Aug. 8.

Lowest spot in division standings: Fourth place, two games out, on April 10.

Most valuable position player: McCutchen established himself as a strong favorite to win the NL’s Most Valuable Player award when that honor is announced this offseason. McCutchen finished seventh in the NL in batting with a .317 average, third in the league in hits with 185 and sixth in the league in runs scored with 97. He wound up the regular season with 21 home runs and 84 RBIs.

Most prolific position player: Third baseman Pedro Alvarez crushed 36 home runs to finish tied for the NL lead in that category with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez’s 100 RBIs left him tied for fifth in the league with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez.

Most valuable starting pitcher: Liriano. But rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole, who won 10 regular-season games and turned in a strong victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division series, was a very close second. Cole earned the right to start the decisive fifth game of the NLDS.

Most valuable relief pitcher(s): Grilli made the transition from eighth-inning setup man to closer seamlessly at the age of 36, converting 33 of 35 save chances and making the All-Star team. But Melancon was equally valuable, and more well-rounded, covering the Pirates’ eighth-inning duties flawlessly through July before stepping into the closer’s role for six weeks following Grilli’s injury.

Comeback player of the year: Right-hander Charlie Morton rebounded from Tommy John elbow surgery to become one of the Pirates’ most consistent starters. He posted a 7-4 record in 20 starts with a 3.26 earned run average.

Biggest disappointment (position player): After registering a career-best 27 home runs and 86 RBIs in the 2012 season, first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones tailed off at the plate in 2013, hitting just 15 regular-season homers and driving in only 51 runs with a .233 batting average.

Biggest disappointments (pitcher): The Pirates took a gamble on veteran left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who was 1-9 with an 8.05 earned run average in 2012 combined duty with the Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals. Sanchez began the 2013 season in the Pirates’ starting rotation but didn’t stay there long. He was designated for assignment April 30 after posting an 0-3 record and 11.35 earned run average. Right-hander James McDonald, who showed so much promise a year ago, spent most of this season on the disabled list with shoulder discomfort in his pitching arm before being designated for assignment in September.

Best streak (batting): McCutchen hit .339 after the all-star break, including a .384 average during August.

Best streaks (starting pitching): Locke won eight consecutive decisions from April 13 through July 3. Locke also put together a scoreless streak of 211/3 innings over four games against Houston, Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta from May 19 through June 4.

Best streak (relief pitching): Closer Grilli converted all of his first 25 save opportunities. His streak came to an end June 19, with a blown save at Cincinnati’s Great American BallPark in a game that the Pirates eventually lost, 2-1, in 11 innings.

Worst streak (team): The Pirates had lost 11 straight games to the Oakland Athletics – a Major League Baseball record for active teams – and had never beaten the A’s before shutting out Oakland, 5-0, at PNC Park July 10.

Batting 1,000: The May 31 contest against the Cincinnati Reds marked the 1,000th game played at PNC Park since its opening in the 2001 season. The Pirates lost that game, 6-0, leaving their record for PNC’s first 1,000 games at 488 wins, 512 losses.

Historic splash: Jones became the first Pirate player to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on a fly when his eighth-inning two-run homer off Cincinnati reliever Jonathan Broxton accomplished the feat June 2. Jones’ blast traveled 463 feet and cleared the PNC Park right-field bleachers and riverwalk before landing in the water.

Strangest finish: Two Houston Astros’ fielders – right fielder Jimmy Paredes and second baseman Jake Elmore – collided on Martin’s pop-up to short right field May 17 at PNC Park, dropping the ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning and allowing Travis Snider to score the winning run from third base in the Pirates’ 5-4 victory.

Three’s a charm: The Pirates hit three consecutive solo homers in the fourth inning of a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs Sept. 13 at PNC Park. Alvarez started the flurry with an inside-the-park homer, and Martin and Jones both followed with solo shots. The last season in which the Pirates hit three consecutive homers in one inning was 2003 in St. Louis. The last season the Bucs did it in Pittsburgh was way back in 1955.

Longest game (time): It took 6 hours, 32 minutes to complete – 4 hours, 12 minutes for the game, plus a 2-hour, 20-minute rain delay – but the wait was worthwhile for the Pirates on June 30, as they finished a three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park with a 2-1 victory in 14 innings.

Longest game (innings): The Pirates lost a 4-2 decision to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 16 innings on Aug. 18 at PNC Park.

Best wins (playoffs): A PNC Park-record crowd of 40,487 watched the Pirates’ 6-2 win over the Reds in the NL wild-card playoff game Oct. 1 at PNC Park behind two solo homers from Martin and another from Byrd … Five days later, a new record attendance of 40,489 watched the Pirates defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-3. The next day, 40,493 fans were on hand to watch the Cardinals post a 2-1 victory.

Best wins/comebacks (regular season): Among the best victories at PNC Park was a 10-7 win over Cincinnati April 14 that completed a three-game series sweep. Two-run homers by catcher Michael McKenry and Marte highlighted a six-run eighth inning for the Pirates, who had trailed, 5-0 after six innings … McCutchen’s seventh-inning solo homer snapped a 5-5 tie and gave the Pirates a 6-5 win over the Reds in the opening game of that series April 12. Other exciting PNC Park victories included: The Pirates’ 4-3, 12-inning win over the Milwaukee Brewers May 14 that ended on McCutchen’s solo home run; a 5-3 win over the Detroit Tigers May 29 in which the Pirates, sparked by Alvarez’s two-run double and Snider’s run-scoring double, rallied for four runs in the seventh inning; Martin’s walkoff bases-loaded single off the left center-field wall that knocked in the only run of the game in the Pirates’ 1-0, 11-inning victory over the Tigers May 30… On June 2, the Pirates rallied from a 4-0 deficit and defeated the Reds, 5-4, in 11 innings on Snider’s RBI single that scored Martin from second base; On June 30, Martin’s 14th-inning single scored Sanchez and produced the 2-1 victory over Milwaukee …Shortstop Jordy Mercer’s 11th-inning RBI single sparked the Pirates to a 3-2 win over the New York Mets July 12 … Presley hit an 11th-inning single to drive home Martin with the winning run as the Pirates edged the St. Louis Cardinals, 2-1, in the first game of a doubleheader July 30 … Martin’s eighth-inning RBI single scored Neil Walker from second base to give the Pirates a 5-4 win over St. Louis July 31 .. Josh Harrison’s walkoff solo homer to right-center field in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Pirates a 4-3 win over the Miami Marlins Aug. 6 …. Martin’s 10th-inning pinch-hit RBI single scored Harrison from second base to give the Pirates a 5-4 win over the Marlins Aug. 8.

In road games, the Pirates’ 10-9, 10-inning victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim June 23 capped a three-game sweep for the Bucs at Angels Ballpark and featured a spirited three-run comeback from a 6-3 ninth-inning deficit. The Pirates tied the game on Marte’s single and won it with four runs in the top of the 10th inning to break a 6-6 tie in what was their benchmark road win of the year. In other road victories, eighth-inning RBI singles by Snider and Brandon Inge proved pivotal as the Pirates rallied from a 3-1 deficit for a 5-3 victory over the Phillies at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park April 24. The very next day, Jones’ pinch-hit two-run double keyed a three-run eighth inning as the Pirates again erased a 3-1 deficit and defeated the Phils, 6-4 … Martin’s two-run homer keyed a four-run seventh-inning rally as the Pirates wiped out a 2-0 deficit and beat the Cardinals, 5-3, on April 27 at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium … Marte’s two-run home run ignited a four-run eighth-inning rally that lifted the Pirates to a rare win over the Brewers in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, 6-4, on May 1. Entering this season, the Bucs had won just seven of their last 51 games in Milwaukee dating back to the beginning of the 2007 season. This year, they won five of nine games in Miller Park … Walker’s solo homer in the 11th inning lifted the Pirates to a 1-0 victory over the Tigers at Detroit’s Comerica Park May 28 … Alvarez’s bases-loaded, three-run double in the seventh inning sparked the Pirates to a 5-3 victory over the Reds in Cincinnati June 20 … Mercer’s ninth-inning single snapped a 2-2 tie and lifted the Pirates to a 4-2 victory over the Mariners at Seattle’s Safeco Field June 26 … Snider’s ninth-inning homer snapped a 3-3 tie and gave the Pirates a 4-3 win in Milwaukee Sept. 3. It was Pittsburgh’s 81st win of the year, guaranteeing that the Pirates’ streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons would finally come to an end … Marte’s ninth-inning solo homer secured the Pirates’ playoff-clinching 2-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs Sept. 23 … Alvarez’s two-run homer sparked a 4-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds Sept. 27 in the first game of a pivotal season-ending three-game series.

Best debuts (position player): Mercer was called up from Class AAA Indianapolis May 3 and made his presence known immediately with a two-run homer that sparked the Pirates to a 3-1 victory over the Washington Nationals at PNC Park. Mercer followed with a two-homer game May 11 against the New York Mets at Citi Field, and his bat was the biggest factor in helping him supplant Clint Barmes as the Pirates’ everyday regular-season starting shortstop. Byrd crashed a two-run homer in his first game in a Pirates uniform Aug. 28, helping the Bucs to a 7-1 win over Milwaukee at PNC Park.

Best debut (starting pitcher): Cole, the top pick in the 2011 amateur baseball draft, made his celebrated major-league debut on Tuesday night, June 11, when the Pirates hosted the defending world champion San Francisco Giants at PNC Park. Cole allowed seven hits and two runs in 62/3 innings, striking out two batters and walking none, while earning credit for the pitching victory in the Pirates’ 8-2 win. A crowd of more than 30,000 fans showed up to watch Cole’s successful indoctrination into the major leagues.

Best debut (relief pitcher): Left-hander Kris Johnson, called up from Class AAA Indianapolis to spell an overworked Pirates bullpen, threw five scoreless innings before giving up a two-run bloop double to Adam Eaton as the Diamondbacks prevailed, 4-2, in the 16-inning marathon Aug. 18 at PNC Park.

Best-pitched games (playoffs): Liriano allowed only four hits in seven innings as the Pirates defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 6-2, in the NL wild-card playoff game at PNC Park Oct. 1 … Cole pitched six shutout innings in the Pirates’ 7-1 win over St. Louis in Game 2 of the NL Division series Oct. 4 … Charlie Morton and three relievers allowed the Cardinals only three hits in Game 4 of the NLDS Oct. 7, but Redbirds rookie Michael Wacha and two Cardinals’ relievers were even better, allowing Pittsburgh just one hit in St. Louis’ 2-1 win.

Best-pitched games (regular season): In games played at PNC Park, Wandy Rodriquez and two relievers teamed to shut out the Chicago Cubs, 3-0, on two hits April 3, accounting for the Pirates’ first win of the season … Rodriquez and two relievers also shut out the Atlanta Braves, 6-0, on two hits April 19 … A.J. Burnett and three relievers combined to shut out the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-0, on one hit April 17. Burnett pitched 62/3 innings and also picked up his 2,000th career strikeout in the game … Locke and two relievers teamed to shut out the Houston Astros, 1-0, on three hits May 19, with Alvarez’s solo homer in the fifth inning providing the game’s only run … Liriano and two relievers combined on a four-hitter in the Pirates’ 1-0 win over the Chicago Cubs May 22 … Locke and five relievers shut out Detroit on nine hits in the 1-0, 11-inning game May 30 … Locke and two relievers shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-0, on six hits June 14. Locke pitched seven very efficient shutout innings, throwing a total of only 75 pitches … After a 2-hour, 20-minute rain delay, five Pirates relievers shut out Milwaukee for 12 innings in the Pirates’ 2-1, 14-inning win June 30 … Liriano and two relievers shut out the Oakland Athletics, 5-0, on five hits July 10 … Rookie Brandon Cumpton pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits, and Jeanmar Gomez finished by tossing two more scoreless innings in the Pirates’ 6-0 victory over St. Louis in the second game of a doubleheader July 30 … Burnett tossed a complete-game victory, spacing eight hits, in the Pirates’ 5-1 win over the Colorado Rockies Aug. 4 … Liriano pitched eight shutout innings and teamed with Melancon for a four-hit, 5-0 whitewashing of the Cardinals Aug. 30.

In road games, Locke and three relievers joined forces to shut out the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-0 on four hits April 23 at Citizens Bank Park. Five days later, Locke and two relievers combined on a three-hit, 9-0 shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals … Gomez and three relievers blanked the Tigers in Detroit on just five hits over 11 innings in the 1-0 Pirates’ win May 28 … Liriano and three relievers shut out the Cubs on five hits, 2-0, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field June 7. Liriano also stopped the Cubs on four hits, 6-2 in a complete-game effort at Wrigley July 5 … Morton and three relievers teamed to shut out the Reds, 4-0, on four hits June 18 … Cole and two relievers teamed to hold the Washington Nationals to just three hits in a 5-1 victory July 23 …. Liriano tossed a 5-1, four-hit complete-game win over the Cardinals Aug. 14 … Cole and two relievers teamed for the 1-0, four-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers Sept. 9, to guarantee the Pirates’ first winning season in over two decades.

Toughest loss (playoffs): Game 5 of the NLDS in St. Louis ended the season, but the 2-1 loss to the Cardinals in Game 4 at PNC Park set the stage for that ending.

Toughest loss (regular season): None was more difficult than the 6-5, 10-inning loss to Cincinnati Sept. 27 at PNC Park. The Pirates squandered a 5-2 ninth-inning lead, and the Reds tied the game with the help of a Mercer throwing error before winning it in the 10th inning on Joey Votto’s solo homer.

Worst performance (regular season): A 13-0 loss to the Cardinals Aug. 1 at PNC Park got the season’s booby prize.