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Kovacevic: Pirates' free fall historic failure

| Friday, Sept. 23, 2011

It's Free Shirt Friday at PNC Park, where the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds open the final homestand of 2011.

Yeah, I called to check.

While our city's sports fans have been immersed in the Steelers' fall and rise, the Penguins' stars back on ice and Pitt's move to the ACC, it's gone almost completely unnoticed that the Pittsburgh Baseball Club has been remastering the art of what it does best: Epic failure.

How else to describe a team that was 53-47 and in first place through 100 games on July 25, only to lose 40 of its past 56 games?

If not epic, then how about historic?

I got to thinking over the past few days — maybe when Charlie Morton was picked off second base, maybe when that pop-up plopped between Alex Presley and Xavier Paul, maybe when the Dodgers pounded the Pirates by a margin that exceeded all but four of the NFL's 14 games that same Sunday — that this free fall out of first place just has to be some sort of record.

Thanks to the wizards at Elias Sports Bureau, I can confirm this morning that it is.

(Cue drumroll.)

In the modern history of Major League Baseball that began in 1900, no team has fared worse than these Pirates after holding first place through 100 games. Actually, no team has even come close. The Pirates' 16-40 record down the stretch makes for a .286 winning percentage. Next-worst was the 1977 Chicago Cubs, who went 60-40 to lead their division through 100 games, then went 21-41 for a .339 winning percentage.

These Pirates went from delight to disgrace before Regis Philbin could break out one chorus of "We Are Family."

And please, let's not talk about how there's been progress.

Sure, the current 69-87 is an upgrade over the pathetic 57-105 last year, but that was expected at the outset. Certainly, much, much more was expected by late July. But the pitching, which carried the team through 100 games with a 3.39 ERA, has a 5.10 ERA since. And the hitting, which has been lousy all along, has a .243 average and a franchise-record 1,251 strikeouts.

That's not progress.

Individually, Jeff Karstens' 3.38 ERA and Joel Hanrahan's 39 saves went above and beyond. Andrew McCutchen's home runs rose from 16 to 23, and Neil Walker and a couple other pitchers were steady. But good luck from there. Of the team's vaunted young core, Jose Tabata couldn't stay on the field, and Pedro Alvarez batted .194, struck out almost as often as a pitcher, then petulantly refused to play winter ball.

That's not progress.

I called earlier this summer for Neal Huntington to be extended as general manager, and I stand by that now that he's had three years added. He has the right plan for a franchise with a smaller revenue base, and he has the right ideas about taking it to the next level.

But Huntington continues to make mistakes with major league acquisitions — Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz added to a string of expensive position-player failures — and must address why it keeps happening. He can start by firing anyone who has recommended a shortstop to him during the past four years.

I've also applauded the work of Clint Hurdle, and I'll stand by the manager, too. The one positive the Pirates deserve to take from this summer is that they did, to borrow Hurdle's term, "break down barriers." They got to first place. They were shown on national TV. They fed off big crowds. The next time it happens, it won't seem like a circus sideshow, and that's to Hurdle's credit.

But the lack of offense belies Hurdle's background as a hitting coach. If neither he nor actual hitting coach Gregg Ritchie could get anyone to overachieve, hard questions must be asked.

Moreover, for all of Hurdle's hilarity, folksiness and energy — all genuine, all welcome — he's had no more answers down the stretch than anyone else. Ever since that 101st game, this has looked little different than a John Russell team.

Remember that 101st game?

Right. That one. It was the 19-inning loss July 26 in Atlanta, where umpire Jerry Meals' blown call sent the season, symbolically or otherwise, into a tailspin that I'm guessing will carry right through a season-ending spanking next week in Milwaukee.

That whole Miller Park thing hasn't exactly improved, either.

If the Pirates try to convince anyone that 2011 brought progress, they'll need a lot more than free shirts to finish the sale.

First to worst

The Pirates' 16-40 record in the past 56 games marks the worst winning percentage (.286) in Major League Baseball history after a team was in first place through 100 games. Here are the three worst such collapses:

Team: Year — First 100 — Afterward — Pct.

Pirates: 2011 — 53-47 — 16-40 — .286

Chicago Cubs: 1977 — 60-40 — 21-41 — .339

Montreal Expos: 1989 — 59-41 — 22-40 — .355

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

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