Three months later

Shortly after Drew Sutton lifted the Bucs to an exhilarating victory over the Astros, Dejan Kovacevic wrote how “these aren’t Jerry Meals’ Pirates.” The date was July 3rd, and the Buccos were flying high. The 8-7 win pushed them to eight games over .500 for the first time in 20 years. Kovacevic wrote, “This team is touching peaks not seen in two decades, touching hearts that long ago gave up on baseball in these parts. It doesn’t deserve the digging up of negatives. It’s been too good, too resilient.”

Three months have come and gone since that special July night, as we sit here on October 3rd. The Pirates season is over; another disappointing summer in the books. A 20th consecutive losing season became official on Sunday afternoon as the Bucs squandered a late lead; a recurring theme in the second half. Much has changed over the last three months. They’ve been too bad; it’s time to dig up some negatives.

DK started right off the bat by saying, “This team is about James McDonald‘s cool, not another Jerry Meals collapse.” That’s the same James McDonald who showed zero cool in the second half, and saw his ERA climb from 2.37 to 4.21. J-Mac was so awful that he deserved a demotion to the bullpen. He made just one appearance out of the ‘pen, in which he allowed three runs without recording an out. He was a vital piece to yet another Jerry Meals collapse, as the Pirates dropped 37 of their final 54 games.

Next, “It’s about Drew Sutton, a minor-league journeyman twice disposed this year alone, crushing a hanging slider to walk off a hero. His eyes would well up later when he described “one of those baseball moments” that makes all the 14-hour bus rides worth it.” Sutton was disposed yet again, just weeks after his dramatic home run. Side note (totally unrelated to baseball talent) – Sutton was notorious for searching his own name on Twitter and oddly responding to fans:

He also enjoyed deleting such tweets, and eventually deleted his Twitter as a whole. Anyway, Sutton was canned after showing just a flash of success (much like his other two MLB stints of 2012). He went back to his 14-hour bus rides, before an injury ended his season.

Also, Dejan mentions, “It’s about the pitching, the sharpest and deepest we’ve seen since Doug Drabek,  John Smiley, Zane Smith, Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk in 1991. All to Neal  Huntington’s credit.” The pitching declined at the end of the year, just as it did in 2011. The sharp and deep staff – both the rotation and bullpen – took a serious hit in the second half, which caused major problems. The rotation was anchored by A.J. Burnett (more on him in a bit) and James McDonald (see above) during the first half, as well as lights out bullpen work from Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli. The ‘pen, which was one of the best in the league early on, saw some struggles during the latter portion of the year; even Grilli and Hanrahan had frustrating times on the hill. In addition, Neal Huntington – who was credited for piecing together a fine staff – is now unpopular among many fans. However, his job is seen as safe.

Kovacevic states, “It’s about A.J. Burnett, the pitcher and the person. If not for that 12-run  beating he absorbed May 2 to help spare the bullpen, his ERA would be 2.46, even  with this hiccup.” To Huntington’s credit, the A.J. Burnett trade was a steal of a deal. Still, Burnett couldn’t be perfect all year. He won just three games in 12 starts since the beginning of August. Although wins aren’t the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, A.J. wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in the first half.

Furthermore, “It’s about Clint Hurdle’s gem of a quote before the game about why Burnett has  taken to Pittsburgh: “He’s loved now. Norm used to like it when he walked into  Cheers, too.” Later, Dejan pens, “It’s about their boss. It’s Hurdle casually saying stuff like, “Our goal is to  re-bond this team with this city.” And meaning it.” Hurdle, who appeared to be the answer for the franchise, isn’t loved quite as much anymore. A man who was focused on re-bonding a city with their baseball team has failed at doing so (thus far). He wanted nothing more than his team to “finish” this season, but they’ve been far from it. From bunts to misusing his bullpen to all-around mis-managing, Hurdle infuriated the fan base on multiple occasions. What it boils down to is that he’s led the team to two straight collapses. While not all blame can be placed on one person – and it certainly shouldn’t be all on Hurdle – he’s certainly a focal point. He can provide gems of quotes, but is he still the man for the job? To put it in perspective, Hurdle has managed 10 MLB seasons; nine of those have been of the losing variety.

DK writes, “It’s about Andrew McCutchen, the team’s MVP and, as of those three hits  Tuesday, the National League leader with a .360 average… Those chants don’t seem far-fetched.” Cutch’s average peaked at .374, but slipped, slipped, and slipped some more with an abysmal August. He finished the month with a .252/.347/.346 triple-slash and just six extra-base hits. McCutchen’s power came back in September, but his average still in the .260’s for the month.  Don’t take it the wrong way – a .327 avg with 31 HR and 96 RBI is still an unreal season. But the team went as Cutch went; a pretty solid start, a phenomenal stretch, a disappointing finish. Those MVP chants soon died down.

Finally, the article describes,

 “…this 2012 season might end up having pivoted off a single pitch. You know which one. Eight days ago in Philadelphia. Brad Lincoln vs. Jim  Thome. The Pirates’ big lead was down to 8-7 in the seventh, two men on, two  outs, 0-2 count. The Same Old Pirates crumble there, sadly, meekly. But Lincoln reared back  and rifled 95-mph heat through Thome’s huge cut. It’s about that pitch. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Lincoln said Tuesday. “But I know it was a big  moment. That’s why I got really emotional.”Yeah, there was that, too. Lincoln gestured slightly into a flexing pose  toward Thome, one he still insists “wasn’t aimed at him.” The two had a brief  staredown.”You know, we should really be past that,” Lincoln said. “Look at us. We  pitch, we play defense, we’re hitting now. We’re here, man. We’re not going  away.” Not this time.”

You know the script. Brad Lincoln, the pitcher who pivoted the season with one pitch, was dealt just weeks later. Yinzers believe it’s the worst trade in history because Lincoln’s having a good year and Snider is unproven. Sabermetricians and stat geeks think it’s a potential high-reward situation for the Pirates.

Regardless, it WAS the same old Pirates that prevailed. We pitch? 4.50+ ERA down the stretch. We hit? .229 team batting average in September. We field? Hmm… remember the seven errors in ONE GAME against the Cubs? Yikes. It’s crazy to reflect on the changes that occurred over the past three months. Down the stretch, it seemed like a completely different team than the one that stood waiting at home plate for Drew Sutton on July 3rd.

“‘We’re not going away.’ Not this time.” Well, they went away. They didn’t step up when it mattered most. Another embarrassing display of Pittsburgh baseball. Sad, really. And now they’re going away for real. The season’s over; no more Pirates baseball in 2012. PNC Park will sit still for six months. The stress and agony of being a Bucs fans can be pushed aside for a while. Hopefully next year will be different – less Jerry Meals talk, no 19 inning games – and maybe even a winning season (oh, please, don’t let the streak hit 21). But until then, it’s going to be a looong winter.

HOKA HEY – 179 days until Opening Day.

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