Last season, the Pirates flirted with a winning record. In 2012, their pursuit progressed to a full-fledged courtship.
They varied their methods, employing stingy run prevention through the first two months of the season before reverting to a powerful offense for the next two. Eventually, the season caught up to them, and a "lack of consistency across the board," as manager Clint Hurdle referred to it, stood in the way of a promising year and sent the team to its second consecutive second-half collapse.
Their 4-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday at PNC Park was their 82nd of the season. The loss ensured that they will finish under .500 for the 20th consecutive year, the longest losing streak among major North American professional sports.
"It's unfortunate where we were at halfway through the season, how good we were playing, to have it kind of fall apart," said Garrett Jones, who hit a home run Sunday. "Nobody saw it coming."
The 1992 Pirates, who reached the National League Championship Series, remain the most recent Pirates team to finish with a winning record.
The NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings and the NHL's Vancouver Canucks each lost for 15 consecutive years, the Kings from 1983-98 and the Canucks from 1976-91. The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished below .500 for 14 consecutive seasons from 1983-96.
The Philadelphia Phillies held the previous Major League Baseball record with 16 losing seasons in a row from 1933-48. The Baltimore Orioles broke their 14-year streak of consecutive losing seasons this year and are competing for a playoff spot.
This season, the Pirates were 62-46 after two-thirds of their season, or 108 of their 162 games.
By losing Sunday, according to a study by ESPN.com writer Jayson Stark with help from the Elias Sports Bureau, the Pirates will become the first team in the history of baseball to finish under .500 after being 16 games over .500 two-thirds of the way through their season.
"It is disappointing, especially when we were able to get to a certain point in the year, we were talking playoffs," Mr. Hurdle said. "Then eventually we're still talking wild card. Unfortunately, it all got away from us."
The Pirates fell off in the second half a year ago, but not with the velocity they employed this season. In 2011, they were seven games over .500 on July 19, but a 25-47 second-half record sent them to a 72-90 finish.
The Pirates struggled to a 25-25 record through the first two months of 2012 on the strength of their pitching, which made up for what at the time was the worst offense in the league.
The Pirates scored 2.64 runs per game in April, 3.18 in May, but their 2.78 ERA in April and 3.61 ERA in May kept them level.
The offensive wheels finally began turning in June, when the Pirates led the National League in runs scored. That continued into July, when their run output ranked third, and they were 59-44 at the July 31 trade deadline.
Adversity struck in August, when the Pirates went 11-17, but it began to hammer away in September. They ended the month 7-21 and their pitching staff had a 4.79 ERA, its highest of any month this season, entering Sunday's game.
The reasons for the collapse vary.
James McDonald, a serious candidate for the All-Star team after a stellar first half of the season, became ineffective in the second half.
Neil Walker, an everyday presence in the middle of the infield and the lineup, missed time in late August and September because of a herniated disc in his lower back.
Perhaps most important, the pitching staff's ERA climbed by a run, from 3.48 to 4.48 entering Sunday, in the second half of the season.
"I completely understand the fans' frustration, that we've not won the games we were supposed to win the last six to eight weeks," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We've fallen short of where we looked like we were going."
Pirates president Frank Coonelly said he will not fire Mr. Huntington or Mr. Hurdle at this time, but the front office has promised to examine why the team fell so sharply from contention for the second consecutive season.
"As soon as we finish this season as well as we possibly can, we will turn our full and total attention to evaluating why we were unable to finish the job and what we must do differently to take the next step to becoming a championship team," Mr. Coonelly said recently.
The Pirates' next chance to break the streak comes in 2013, after an offseason containing several important -- and expensive -- salary arbitration cases for players such as Mr. Walker, Mr. McDonald, Mr. Jones and Joel Hanrahan.
Top draft pick Gerrit Cole awaits his chance to join the rotation, and NL most valuable player candidate Andrew McCutchen provides a strong No. 3 hitter around which to construct a lineup.
For now, the pursuit must be tabled for yet another season.
Bill Brink: email@example.com. Twitter: @BrinkPG. First Published October 1, 2012 4:00 AM