It became official at 4:41 p.m. Sunday when Pirates outfielder Starling Marte struck out against Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, just moments after Jose Tabata was thrown out at third base for the first out of the ninth inning after being brainlessly waved over by coach Nick Leyva. Somehow, it seemed appropriate that the Reds assured the Pirates of a mind-numbing 20th consecutive losing season by rallying with two runs in the ninth off hammer Joel Hanrahan and inflicting a 4-3 defeat at PNC Park. The Reds dumped on the Pirates all season, from Chapman apparently throwing at Andrew McCutchen's head Aug. 3 to Brandon Phillips unconscionably insinuating that Jared Hughes is a racist Sept. 10 to Homer Bailey pitching a no-hitter against them Friday night, the first against the franchise in 41 years.
Though another losing season almost seemed inevitable as August turned into September -- the Pirates have gone 14-35 since Aug. 8 -- the finality of at least 82 losses still is surreal. The Pirates went from talking about winning the National League Central Division to making the playoffs as a wild card to ...
"Unfortunately, it all got away from us," manager Clint Hurdle said.
We all know the reasons for one of the worst collapses in baseball history. The starting pitching, so good for four-plus months, stunk down the stretch. If you want to blame one guy the most, blame James McDonald. The bullpen, just as good as the starters through the first week of August, stunk down the stretch. If you want to blame one guy the most, blame Jason Grilli. The offense, which hit lights out in June and July, stunk down the stretch. If you want to blame one guy the most, blame McCutchen. Sure, that's unfair in a lot of ways because -- big picture -- the man is having a tremendous season. But, for the most part, he stopped hitting home runs and driving in runs in the second half. His walk-off home run Saturday night is a classic example of too little, too late.
The big question today is this:
Where does this season rank among the 19 before it in terms of futility, failure and -- most of all -- frustration?
I'm thinking it's the worst.
Not that there aren't a lot of other legitimate candidates.
In no particular order:
• 2009: The Pirates lost 99 games and probably were spared loss No. 100 when their Oct. 1 game against the Chicago Cubs was rained out and cancelled. Who says the baseball gods are against the franchise?
• 2010: The Pirates went 57-105, their most losses since 1952. Manager John Russell was fired after three seasons and a 186-299 record. To this day, no one in the organization can explain why he was hired in the first place. It certainly wasn't his personality.
• 2007: The Pirates drafted pitcher Daniel Moskos instead of catcher Matt Wieters in the first round of the amateur draft. Moskos is out of the organization. Wieters has been in the big leagues since '09, made the All-Star Game this season and is a big part of a Baltimore Orioles club that's headed toward the playoffs. You don't think a good catcher would look good on these Pirates, do you?
The season also deserves consideration as the most irritating of the past 20 because the Pirates acquired pitcher Matt Morris at the trade deadline. They agreed to take on the prorated portion of Morris' $9.5 million salary in '07, all $9.5 million in '08 and his $1 million buyout in '09. Morris started 0-4 with a 9.67 ERA in '08 and was released in late April.
• 2003: The Pirates gave away third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Chicago Cubs in July in a salary dump, arguably the worst trade in franchise history. Ramirez, in his 15th major league season, has a 162-game average of 30 home runs and 109 RBIs.
• 2001: The Pirates moved into beautiful PNC Park with a promise from then-owner Kevin McClatchy that the team would be competitive going forward. They lost 100 games that season, then raised ticket prices for 2002.
• 2002: In spring training, outfielder Derek Bell promised to go into "Operation Shutdown" if he wasn't given a starting job despite hitting .173 the previous season. The team quickly released him and ate his $4.75 million salary. Bell isn't the only player to quit on the Pirates, by the way. Raul Mondesi went home to the Dominican Republic in May 2004 and never came back.
• 2006: Major League Baseball gave the Pirates a gift by awarding them the All-Star Game only 12 years after they previously were the host. The team embarrassed the city by taking a 30-60 record into the break on its way to a 95-loss season.
But the season was remembered more for what happened before the first game. Actor/Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton, who was invited by the Pirates to throw out the first pitch on opening day, ripped McClatchy's ownership group at a pregame news conference. "At some point, you have to write the check," he said, famously.
That only could happen to the Pirates.
Actually, Keaton was wrong to a point. There were times the Pirates spent money but made horrible mistakes. See Bell and Morris above. They signed singles hitter Jason Kendall to a six-year, $60 million deal as PNC Park opened, a contract that paralyzed the franchise for years. They signed any number of castoffs, including Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard and Nate McLouth this season.
• 2011: The Pirates were 53-47 through July 25. They finished 19-43. It was the worst collapse in franchise history.
Until this season.
This collapse is worse because the Pirates built such high expectations that our long, regional nightmare finally would be over.
But it's not over.
It's 20 years and counting.roncook
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.