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Not so long ago, it seemed almost a certainty that the Pittsburgh Pirates would enjoy their first winning season in 20 years. But all the certainty has gone away, as the Bucs fell to .500 with another loss Wednesday night.
I did not see this one coming.
Maybe I should have. Maybe you did. But I did not. I did not believe the Pittsburgh Pirates would fall apart, completely. Again.
But that is exactly what they have done. Again.
Let's jump in our time machine and take a short trip backward, to the 25th of July in 2011. The Pittsburgh Pirates have just finished beating the Atlanta Braves, 3-1, and pulled into a tie for first place in the National League Central. The Pirates hadn't played particularly well to that point in the season; they were just 53-47 and their run differential was uninspiring.
So, no, they didn't really look like postseason contenders. But they did seem to have at least a decent chance of finishing the season with their first winning record since 1992. That would have been a really nice story.
You know what happened next. Somehow the Pirates won only 19 of their last 62 games: 19-43. After playing like a perfectly decent .500 team for nearly four months, the Pirates played like the worst team in the majors for two months. And I did not see that coming. Must have been a fluke.
Let's hop back in our time machine, and jump forward just slightly more than one year ... Hey, it's the 1st of August, 2012! And look at the Pittsburgh Pirates! Did last summer's collapse wound their fragile collective psyche? Hardly! With only a couple of months left in the season, they're 60-44! They're just three games behind the first-place Reds, and enjoy a nice little edge in the Wild Card standings.
Okay, so maybe they're not going to actually reach the postseason. There's still something of a talent gap, probably, between the Pirates and (say) the Cardinals. But a winning season, finally? Why, all the Pirates have to do from here is win 22 of their last 58 games: 22-36. They can do that, right?
Maybe. But it's going to be a close-run thing. Wednesday night, the Pirates lost to the Brewers. Since the 1st of August, the Pirates have gone 14-30. They're now dead even: 74-74. It's really simple. They've got 14 games left. If they don't win eight of them, they'll have failed, for the 20th straight season, to win more than they lost.
So what happened? Well, you certainly can't fault the Pirates' efforts. They tried.
But while it's been a team effort, the Pirates' biggest problem is obvious: two of their best players in the first four months of the season have fallen way off since then. When the Pirates were 60-44, Andrew McCutchen was everyone's favorite MVP candidate, and for good reasons. Since? He's batted .259/.360/.401; he's still be getting on base but his batting average has plummeted from .373 to sub-Melky. When the Pirates were 60-44, James McDonald was 10-5 with a 3.38 ERA; since then, he's gone 2-3 with a 6.25 ERA, which cost him his spot in the rotation.*
* It doesn't fit my neat little narrative, but McDonald's struggles began before August. At the All-Star break, MacDonald ranked among the league leaders with a 2.37 ERA; since the All-Star break, McDonald's got a 7.05 ERA, which is pretty incredible unless he's hurt or something.
I'm sure we could come up with a few other scapegoats, but that seems like an exercise in meanness. By the same token, we might wonder if Clint Hurdle's doing something wrong ... but what, exactly, might that be? Did he do something to kill McCutchen's batting average? Did he wave a wand and turn McDonald into a pumpkin?
This is probably just one of those things, where for two straight years the Pirates played over their heads for a few months, and then the odds not only caught up with them, but gobsmacked the bejeezus out of them.
Maybe the odds will turn around again for the Pirates, for just a couple of weeks. Would that be so much to ask?