Now it's wait 'til next year
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, center, starting pitcher Charlie Morton, left, and pitching coach Ray Searage watch from the dugout during the bottom of the seventh inning Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park.
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They traveled to the same destination for the 19th year in a row, but this season, the Pirates took the scenic route.
They spent some time in first place on the way and energized their fan base during an out-of-character June and July, and they did so with a batch of young players. But they eventually extended their record losing streak to 19 seasons, the longest in history among the four major North American sports, with a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday.
"It's kind of hard to swallow," starter Jeff Karstens said. "Where we were sitting at after the All-Star break is where we wanted to be at."
The Pirates gave life to the daydream of what winning baseball could -- and once did -- bring to Pittsburgh. Fans packed PNC Park and stayed to the end of the games, watching meaningful at-bats in the late innings. As All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan's goatee grew, so did his streak of 26 consecutive saves, causing fans to scream in anticipation when the red-lining speedometers on the scoreboard signaled his entry into the game.
The clubhouse grew louder: The postgame playlist, which the players only fired up after wins, became a much more common sound on the field level of PNC Park. Division rivals praised the Pirates' improved pitching staff, their diligent at-bats and their scrappy, we-shall-overcome persona. But eventually the number of wins began to thin.
"It comes down to execution," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were very good at it for three-and-a-half months; we have not been good at it for the last six weeks in a number of different areas."
The loss in the seventh game of the 1992 National League Championship Series started the record-setting streak. The NHL's Vancouver Canucks and the NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings each lost for 15 consecutive years, the Canucks from 1976-91 and the Kings from 1983-98. 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.
When the Pirates clinched a losing season in the past, though, they did so with far more futility. Last season, they lost their 82nd game Aug. 20 and had 40 wins on the way to a last-place finish and a 57-105 season. This year, they had 67 wins and were fourth in the division.
Life for the Pirates became as good as one could ask for near the All-Star break. When Mr. Karstens shut out the Houston Astros in the first game after the break, the Pirates improved to 48-43 and took first place in the division for the first time. A win against the Cincinnati Reds July 19 put them at 51-44, a season-high seven games over .500, and they were still in first July 25.
"We were in contention for a good time there," starter Charlie Morton said. "We never had that. We never had anything close to that."
The next night, after 19 innings of play at Turner Field in Atlanta, a blown call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals sent them to a loss against the Braves. Shortly thereafter began a sweep in Philadelphia, a 10-game losing streak and an 8-22 record in August.
"Even with the call that happened there, we took two out of four," Mr. Karstens said. "You go to Philly hoping to at least take two, and they kind of beat us up. I think it was just kind of a snowball effect from there."
After they were swept against the Phillies, they returned home and lost seven consecutive games to the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres, two of the worst teams in the National League. They were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers and Astros -- another terrible team -- in August and the last-place Florida Marlins last weekend.
The Pirates assembled a competitive first half of the season despite injuries to catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, as well as Pedro Alvarez, Evan Meek, Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Tabata. Mr. Karstens grabbed Mr. Ohlendorf's spot in the rotation and became one of the best pitchers in the majors in June. He and the rest of the rotation, which made the biggest improvement of any aspect of the team over last season's production, led the Pirates to their surprising first half.
Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued that same rotation in the second half, though. Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm will miss the final 11/2 months of the season due to injuries, Mr. Karstens skipped two starts because of shoulder fatigue and Mr. Morton missed a start while he worked on his consistency.
Opposing run totals climbed along with the Pirates' strikeout rate, and they are 20-39 since the break.
"The bad streaks kind of feel similar to the bad streaks last year, but the season as a whole, even the way we're losing games, is totally different," Mr. Morton said. "The atmosphere is totally different in here."
Their winning percentage for the 2011 season will begin with a four, same as in the past 18 seasons -- except for the dismal campaigns that brought a three into the equation -- but 2011 displayed promise. Younger players, including starter Brad Lincoln and outfielder Alex Presley, made an impact and began fighting for jobs in 2012. The road record, 17-64 in 2010, improved to 33-38 as of today.
"There's a lot to be proven, there's a lot to be said and done before the season's over," Mr. Karstens said.
"You play 162 games for a reason. If you're going to play 155, you shouldn't be here."
In 1992, the Pirates won the National League Eastern Division with a 96-66 record. It was the last season the team finished with more wins than losses.
Also that year:
• Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds won the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
• George H.W. Bush was in the fourth and final year of his presidency.
• A gallon of gasoline cost $1.13, the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke the 3,400 barrier.
• The Washington Redskins were reigning Super Bowl champs, the Penguins held professional hockey's Stanley Cup and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" won the Academy Award as best picture.
First Published September 15, 2011 12:00 am