The season finale Wednesday afternoon between the Pirates and the Atlanta Braves had the feel of a spring training game.
The game didn't matter to either team. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez used eight pitchers, none for more than two innings. The Braves stole three bases and all led to runs.
The major difference from a spring game: A.J. Burnett took the mound, something a fractured orbital bone prevented him from doing for the majority of preseason play. As Burnett approached the third-base line on his way out of the game in the sixth inning, he tipped his cap twice, first toward left field, then again in the direction of home plate.
Burnett didn't pitch particularly well, yet the crowd of 20,615 at PNC Park stood in a show of appreciation as Burnett headed for the dugout.
"To have them stand up like that again on the last day when things didn't go right, it's special," Burnett said after the Pirates' 4-0 loss against the Braves.
Burnett came out with two outs in the sixth. He said manager Clint Hurdle could have kept him in, but opted to remove him so he could receive the fans' appreciation.
"He said I deserved it," Burnett said.
The Pirates finished with a 79-83 record, tying the highest win total in their 20-season losing streak.
That would seem more impressive if not for the way the Pirates reached that point. They had a shot at the division title in August and remained in the wild-card hunt into September. A 7-22 record in September abruptly ended the chase for a playoff spot and a winning record.
"Unfortunately, toward that trade deadline we kind of fell off there," reliever Joel Hanrahan said.
"That's not what you look for. It's frustrating for us. If you look back at it and you see the improvement we had throughout the year, I think you got to be happy with the progress and keep moving forward."
Burnett, 35, who came over in a trade from the New York Yankees at the start of spring training, represented one of the many positive aspects of the season. He finished 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA.
"I had a good time," said Burnett, who is under contract through next season. "I think coming over here helped me find myself and get back to loving the game again, being around these guys.
"They took me in from the get-go, before I even broke my face in spring. Crowd, the same way."
The Pirates have the option, if not intent or desire, to retain almost all their players for next season, but Hurdle said external help will play a role in shaping the 2013 roster.
"We had a group of guys who were able to push us to 16 games over .500 at one point in time of the season," he said. "We've got to finish.
"I would say we've got players in place that are going to help us, that are going to be here when we do win a division title and when we do win a playoff game, but I think you're always looking to add."
The final game encapsulated two of the Pirates' main issues. They struggled at the plate and allowed stolen bases that led to runs.
Michael Bourn stole two bases, one without a throw, to set up a run after walking to lead off the game. Martin Prado's sacrifice fly scored Bourn to put the Braves ahead, 1-0. The Braves added another run in the fourth and two more in the sixth.
Gonzalez, planning for his team's wild-card game Friday in Atlanta against St. Louis, burned through his bullpen to keep his relievers fresh. The mixing and matching stymied the Pirates, who managed four singles and struck out 11 times.
The Pirates face the task of mending the issues that led to their faulty second half.
"I felt we were better than 79 wins," Hurdle said. "That's how many games we won. We need to do better."
As players packed their lockers and prepared to leave, Burnett voiced what the fans felt over the second half of the season.
"Trust me," he said, "we're just as upset as they are that things didn't go the way we wanted them to go."
Pirates record before the All-Star break
Pirates record after the All-Star breakpirates
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@BrinkPG. First Published October 4, 2012 4:00 AM