Bucs' streak of futility hits 20 straight seasons
For eight innings Sunday afternoon, it almost felt like the Pirates' Great Collapse of the past two months had never happened.
Wandy Rodriguez tossed seven gritty innings against the Cincinnati Reds, the nastiest team in the NL Central. Garrett Jones smacked a clutch, two-run homer. Andrew McCutchen delivered a go-ahead single that had the near-capacity crowd buzzing.
Then came the ninth inning, and it was back to reality.
A blown save and a baserunning snafu allowed the Reds to steal a 4-3 victory, clinching the Pirates' 20th consecutive losing season.
Eight weeks ago, the Pirates were 16 games over .500 and had a wild-card playoff berth in their grasp. Since then, they have gone 15-36 and fallen out of the race.
“Nobody saw this coming,” said Jones, his soft voice barely discernible in the silent clubhouse. “Everybody's pretty ticked off.”
The once-proud, 126-year-old franchise has not had a winning season since 1992.
“It is disappointing,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Especially (because) we got to a point where we were talking playoffs. Unfortunately, it all got away from us.”
Closer Joel Hanrahan was unable to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning. Xavier Paul, a journeyman outfielder who played for the Pirates last year, lifted a pinch-hit homer over the Clemente Wall to tie it at 3.
“I missed with a couple sliders, and he was sitting dead red,” Hanrahan said. “I left a fastball out over the plate, and he yanked it.”
With two outs, Ryan Ludwick doubled on an 0-2 pitch. Zack Cozart lined a go-ahead, RBI double to left field.
“It's not like the pressure gets to me,” Hanrahan said. “I had a guy 0-2, and I didn't put him away. You can't do that.”
In the bottom of the ninth, Jose Tabata drew a leadoff walk. When Aroldis Chapman's pickoff attempt sailed into right field, Tabata sprinted to second base, then tried for third.
“(Third-base coach) Nick Leyva sent me,” Tabata said. “I didn't see where the ball was. It took a perfect throw.”
Second baseman Wilson Valdez's throw nailed Tabata by a step.
“Once he's waved, he's going,” Hurdle said. “It turned out not to be a good decision.”
After that, Clint Barmes walked, and Rod Barajas singled to left — the hit likely would have scored Tabata had he held up at second base. Michael McKenry struck out looking. Starling Marte struck out swinging at a 99-mph fastball that was out of the zone.
The Pirates' run of losing seasons is the longest among North American professional sports teams. McCutchen said that streak — not the team's magical first-half run — will be the indelible stamp of the 2012 season.
“No one will remember what we did in the first half of the season,” McCutchen said. “We've got to figure out how to catch a second wind and keep moving forward.”
General manager Neal Huntington has begun assessing every coach, scout, player and training system in the organization. The club is 335-471 (.416) in Huntington's five years at the helm.
“We're going to evaluate everything,” he said. “But there is going to be a much more intense focus on the past two months when it unraveled for us.”
This winter, there will be turnover to the roster — and perhaps in the front office. Owner Bob Nutting has begun his own appraisal of the executive staff, and he has the final say over who stays and who goes.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.