Team retains label of winner
The words are stark. Winner. Loser.
Sometimes the mathematical difference is minuscule, but always the descriptions seem worlds apart. Winning and losing is night and day with a winning percentage as the determinant.
The Pirates began play Tuesday night as neither winner nor loser. Instead, they were poised on the knife's edge of .500 at 18-18. A victory meant they were winners for the night and the season to date. A loss was a double setback.
The Pirates hadn't been below .500 since starting the season 0-1 at New York. They had proceeded to run off five consecutive victories and establish themselves as winners.
There's a ring to the term.
When they revisited .500 at 16-16 last week, the Pirates bounced upward with back-to-back wins against Houston.
Now, after back-to-back losses, the spectre of one more defeat dropping the team to loser status was present. Make no mistake, for a team that slipped below break-even a mere nine games into last season, on the way to a 100-loss record, avoiding dipping below .500 this season would be meaningful.
It's human nature.
"As a player, you look at the standings and see yourself with a winning record, it certainly feels good," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. "Relatively speaking, where we were the last couple of years, yeah, it certainly breeds confidence.
"I sure as hell feel a lot better than I did last year at this time."
The Pirates already were 10 games under .500 at 13-23 when they began play May 14 of last year.
Not that a loss last night and an 18-19 would have been cause for surrender.
"If we lose tonight, are we going to go in the tank or something?" was how McClendon interpreted a question before the game at PNC Park. No, was his response.
" I don't think it would affect them adversely if we fell a game or two below .500," he said. "Probably, it would tick them off a little bit, make them a little bit more determined."
Still, in the wake of a loss, it would have been hard for the fans, and maybe some of the veteran players, to fight down the feeling that they were headed down a familiar path. When a franchise hasn't had a winning season since 1992, such emotions are understandable.
They are emotions to be put away for another day because the Pirates bounced off .500 once again, this time edging the Arizona Diamondbacks, 2-1.
Kip Wells went 6 1 / 3 strong innings for the win. He was cognizant of the Pirates' 11-0 loss the night before and what another defeat would mean to the season record. He considered the win significant.
"I try to go out there, and if we're coming off a bad one or if we're struggling . . . I want to try to answer with a good outing," he said. "Every time I go out there, I want to win, but there's just that much more intensity and that much more emotion behind it (last night)."
Wells and the bullpen made Chad Hermansen's two-run homer in the third stand up for the win. The other notable offensive number was Pokey Reese getting a pair of hits and ending a run of 17 consecutive hitless at-bats.
"Hopefully, that will get a streak going here," Reese said. "I've been struggling a little bit."
The Pirates, too, had been struggling but are back above .500. The longer they can stay there, the greater their confidence grows.
There is more. In the NL Central Division vintage 2002, a .500 record equates with contending. At five or 10 games below .500, contention is a pipe dream, as McClendon conceded. At .500 or above, there is a ring of legitimacy to a team's division chances.
When the Pirates crack open their newspapers this morning, they will find themselves second in the NL Central standings. They will see a winning record. They will feel just a little bit better about life and themselves.
Sam Ross Jr. is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review .