MILWAUKEE -- It was fitting that the starter for the final game of the Pirates season began 2011 in Class AA Altoona.
Such was the Pirates year, filled with injuries, young replacements, hope, promise, first place, Jerry Meals, losing streaks and another sub-.500 season.
Jeff Locke began the season in Altoona, joined Class AAA Indianapolis in August for five starts and came up in September, making four starts for the Pirates. He made his fourth Wednesday night at Miller Park, and the Milwaukee Brewers took advantage.
Three home runs off Locke sent the Pirates to a 7-3 loss in their final game of the season, giving them a 72-90 record. They narrowly missed finishing with fewer than 90 losses for the first time since 2004.
Life was good for the Pirates after the first 100 games of the season, when they sent three players to the All-Star Game and had a 53-47 record, good for first place in the NL Central. After Meals, the home-plate umpire in a 19-inning game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, missed a call at home plate, the record spiraled downward.
Meals cannot shoulder all the blame, though. The Pirates' team batting average fell to .242 after the All-Star break, 28th in the majors, compared to .247 in the first half. Their 3.44 ERA in the first half ranked eighth in the majors, but that number increased to 4.76 in the second half. Starting pitchers reached innings counts previously untouched, and the lineup increasingly struggled with the strikeout: they led the league in punch-outs in the second half.
Not all was lost. Alex Presley and Brad Lincoln made pitches to join the lineup and rotation next season with their inspired performance, and first-year manager Clint Hurdle, by all accounts, made an impact on the team's psyche that contributed the to the increased success.
It ended in quiet, inconspicuous fashion Wednesday. In addition to allowing the three Brewers home runs, the Pirates allowed three stolen bases. But the opponent gave the game a different feel.
The Brewers needed a win to secure home-field advantage in the division series, and Locke prevented Ryan Braun from winning the NL batting title. Locke allowed five runs in four innings on five hits.
The Pirates hit two balls hard off Zack Greinke in the first -- Xavier Paul's leadoff single and a line drive by Neil Walker that Corey Hart could not catch on a slide.
He got Paul at second after Paul stopped between the bases, though, and Andrew McCutchen grounded into a double play to end the inning.
Jonathan Lucroy hit an 0-1 pitch just out of Paul's reach over the left-center field wall for his 12th home run in the third. Three batters later, Corey Hart hit a low-and-away breaking ball the opposite way for his 26th, and the Brewers led, 2-0.
Derrek Lee doubled and scored on Jason Jaramillo's single in the fourth to cut the Brewers' lead to one.
In the fourth, Rickie Weeks reached first on a fielder's choice and Lucroy walked before Carlos Gomez hit a three-run home run to left-center off Locke to put the Brewers up 5-1.
Hart reached first in the fifth on an error by Lee and stole second. Jerry Hairston Jr.'s single scored him. Braun reached first on a fielder's choice, and Weeks walked, but Yuniesky Betancourt ended the inning with a long fly to center.
The Pirates scored one run in the sixth. Neil Walker doubled, went to third on McCutchen's ground ball and scored on Prince Fielder's throwing error, but that only reduced the Brewers' lead to 6-2.
In the bottom half of the sixth, Lucroy reached first on a wild pitch, stole second, went to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a sacrifice fly.
For the Brewers and their home run-hitting lineup, though, that kind of small ball rarely surfaced.
Some Pirates will head to the instructional league or winter ball to sharpen their skills. Most will go home to their families and watch football.
They will return to spring training next year with a long list of things on which to improve, but memories of what could be when things begin to go right.
Bill Brink: email@example.com . First Published September 29, 2011 4:00 AM