And so, with one final afternoon game at PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most eventful and confounding season of the past two decades came to an end.
The Braves downed the Pirates 4-0 Wednesday in a spring training-like contest, as Atlanta used 15 position players and eight pitchers to claim the last game of the final series of 2012. Pittsburgh won the first two games of the season-ending set with Atlanta, but fell just shy of reaching the 80-win plateau for the first time since 1992.
As it is, the Pirates have to settle for a 79-83 record, matching the team’s best since its 20-year losing streak began. The Bucs also finished with that result in 1997, the most recent time they were in a serious playoff race in September.
Of course, they were in wild-card position this year with a 63-47 record in early August, but a 16-36 slump pushed them out of contention by mid-September. The mood of Wednesday’s game resembled that desultory closing stretch, with the Pirates managing just four singles and never advancing a runner to second base.
The Braves’ side of the story was more interesting, with Ben Sheets pitching a perfect first inning in his final MLB appearance and third baseman Chipper Jones collecting a pinch-hit single in his last regular-season game. Atlanta now prepares for a one-game playoff Friday between the National League’s two wild-card teams; the Braves host the defending champion Cardinals for the right to advance to the best-of-five division series.
Pirates starter A.J. Burnett finished a renaissance season with a subpar performance, making it through 5 2/3 innings and allowing four runs on eight hits and two walks. The 35-year-old righty was pulled after allowing the Braves to double their lead to 4-0.
Atlanta began its postseason warm-up with a quick run in the first. Centerfielder Michael Bourn led off with a walk and proceeded to steal second and third with Martin Prado at the plate. Prado then bopped a sacrifice fly to right, making Bourn’s 41st and 42nd steals immediately relevant.
The stolen base factored significantly in the Braves’ second run as well, continuing a disturbing trend for the Pirates during their collapse. Jason Heyward started the fourth with a single and nabbed second as Freddie Freeman struck out. Dan Uggla drove in Heyward with a liner up the middle to make it 2-0 Atlanta.
As if to highlight the Pirates’ multifaceted struggles in the larceny category, Andrew McCutchen was picked off by reliever Julio Teheran to end the bottom of the fourth.
Nonetheless, McCutchen, who was replaced to a standing ovation in the eighth, finished the best season of his four-year MLB career with a .327 average, second in the NL to San Francisco’s Buster Posey. He was 1-for-3 with a single Wednesday.
Jones’ big moment came to start the Atlanta sixth. After a lengthy round of applause from the PNC Park crowd of 20,615, the 19th-year stalwart lined a single through the right side and eventually came around to score on J.C. Boscan’s hit. Ben Francisco’s RBI groundout followed, pushing Burnett from the game.
Pirates relievers Chad Qualls (1/3 inning), Hisanori Takahashi (1), Chris Leroux (1) and Rick van den Hurk (1) teamed up to complete the game. Takahashi struck out two in the seventh, and Leroux fanned the side in a perfect eighth.
For the Braves, Teheran shouldered the largest load by pitching two innings. Atlanta manager Fredi Freeman, perhaps with the intention of keeping his high-leverage relievers sharp for Friday, used Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel to lock down the final three innings.
Venters and Kimbrel combined for five strikeouts in the eighth and ninth. Kimbrel finished the season with a ridiculous 50 percent strikeout rate, the first time that’s happened for any pitcher who threw more than six innings in a season. Kimbrel threw 62 2/3 innings this year.
Atlanta’s Brian McCann and Jason Heyward finished with two hits apiece. McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Clint Barmes and pinch-hitter Travis Snider accounted for the Pirates’ four knocks.