Cook: Painful conclusion doesn't spoil what was a wonderful season in Pittsburgh

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"Don't be sad it's over. Be glad it happened."

ST. LOUIS -- The words of great wisdom are from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. They were directed at Colorado Rockies fans last month after face-of-the-franchise Todd Helton announced his retirement. They just as easily could be directed at you this morning.

OK, so maybe you won't find them very soothing initially.

Most of the Pirates surely didn't.

They don't call it the agony of defeat for nothing. The Pirates' wondrous 2013 season came to a painful end Wednesday night at Busch Stadium in a 6-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. The team that truly believed it could win the World Series is done.

It hurts.

From a front-office standpoint: "There's no satisfaction about it being a great year ... not right now," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We felt like we're right there with all of these teams."

And from the players' standpoint: "It's pretty tough to sit and talk about our season being over," shortstop Clint Barmes said. "We definitely have the talent and the players to go deeper in October and compete for a ring."

This latest and final loss, like the 2-1 loss in Game 4 at PNC Park when the Pirates nearly were no-hit by rookie Michael Wacha, can be blamed on the hitters. They went 8 for 32 Wednesday, a combined 9 for 59 in the two games. Throw in the 9-1 loss in Game 1 and the Pirates went 13 for 90 (.144) in the three defeats.

It was the worst display of big-game hitting since Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla failed so miserably in the early 1990s.

Not to ruin your breakfast.

"We didn't find it this series when we needed it," Barmes said.

"Every time we turned around, Wainwright got in the way tonight," Hurdle said.

For the second time in the series, starter Adam Wainwright was too much for the Pirates and finished with a complete game. The Pirates got one run and eight hits after getting one run and three hits against him in seven innings of Game 1.

"He's a pro. He's an absolute pro," Hurdle said.

You probably had the feeling it was going to be a rough night when Starling Marte struck out on four pitches to open the game. He went 1 for 19 in the series, not that he was alone in his futility. No. 2 hitter Neil Walker went 0 for 19. That's pretty lame.

Not to be critical.

The Cardinals woke up just enough against Pirates rookie starter Gerrit Cole. Third baseman David Freese gave Wainwright all the support he needed in the third inning when he hit a 1-2 hanging breaking ball from Cole into the Pirates bullpen in left field for a 2-0 lead. Freese is used to this sort of thing. He was MVP of the 2011 National League Championship Series and World Series, leading the Cardinals to the world title that year.

The results really shouldn't have been surprising. The Pirates came in facing some tough odds. The more experienced Cardinals were 7-1 in elimination games dating to the 2011 season. They were playing at home in front of their passionate fans, as good as any in baseball. They had Wainwright -- always a Cy Young candidate -- on the mound against the Pirates' precocious Cole, making just his 21st start in the big leagues.

Still, the loss will sting for a few days. The Pirates had a great opportunity to survive and advance to the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Who knows when they'll get that chance again? We, in Pittsburgh, know better than anyone that a playoff spot doesn't happen every year.

Or every 20 years, for that matter.

But go back and read Hurdle's words again.

"Don't be sad it's over. Be glad it happened."

This was a good season for the Pirates, the ugly ending notwithstanding. They did what so many of us thought was impossible. They made baseball relevant again in Pittsburgh. They provided countless wonderful memories for their fans, including those 25 or younger who couldn't remember their most recent winning season.

You used to be embarrassed to say you were a Pirates fan. Not anymore. That's a good thing, right?

Wednesday was fun even if the results didn't go the way you wanted. The daylong buildup to the game was wonderful. The anxious moments leading up to the first pitch created emotions in Pittsburgh people that they hadn't experienced in decades. For the first time in a long time, Pirates fans felt alive. For the first time in a long time, Pirates fans weren't embarrassed to be Pirates fans.

Their team gave it a heck of a shot. The players said they weren't happy getting to 82 wins to end that hellacious streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons. They said they weren't satisfied beating the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card game to become the first Pirates team to advance in the postseason in 34 years. They said they wanted more. They wanted it all.

The Pirates just came up short.

"I think we definitely opened the eyes of a lot of people," likely National League MVP Andrew McCutchen said. "We can't let this one game define us. We had an amazing year. It's a year that goes down in the books forever ...

"We're not the laughingstocks of baseball anymore."

Sure, it will be tough to turn on the television Friday night and watch the Cardinals play the Dodgers. But the disappointment will pass. It always does. It is then that you will come to the only rational conclusion.

You will be damn glad this Pirates season happened.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.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. First Published October 9, 2013 9:10 PM


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