The Pittsburgh Pirates are 89-67 entering the final week of the 2013 MLB regular season. Their magic number to clinch their first playoff spot in 20 years is two. And although it’s unlikely the Bucs will win the National League Central division – they trail St. Louis by two games with six to play – there’s about a 50-50 chance that PNC Park will be the site of the NL wild-card game next Tuesday.
Would you have accepted this scenario back in March? I know I would’ve. My preseason prediction here on City of Champions was an 88-74 campaign for the Bucs, culminating in a wild-card berth. I have to admit, that felt like a bit of a reach.
Sure, I thought the Pirates would improve upon their 79-win 2012 season, especially considering it took a historic free-fall for them to miss out on a winning season. However, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if the Bucs stagnated in 2013 due to injuries, regression or a combination of the two.
Instead, the Pirates overcame a middling April to surge to the top record in baseball by early July. They rode a 9-2 homestand to a four-game lead in the Central in early August, elevating to a season-best 26 games over .500 at that point. Despite some inconsistencies after that, Pittsburgh clinched a winning season on Sept. 9, and had an 87-62 mark eight days ago.
Anything beyond that should’ve felt like whipped cream on a sundae, so why did the past week, during which the Pirates lost five of seven home games, feel so disappointing?
Part of it has to be the two squandered ninth-inning leads. Pittsburgh entered Wednesday night with two losses all season when carrying an advantage into the final frame, but that total doubled in a span of three days on the North Shore.
The first one, in which the Padres singled Mark Melancon to death while plating a pair of runs, was bad enough, but Friday night’s error-and-luck-fueled debacle hurt badly – it wasted a chance to go two games ahead of the Reds for the top wild-card spot.
Sunday’s blowout loss was also a huge downer. The Pirates won 50 games at PNC Park for the first time in the 13-year history of the ballpark, featuring countless crowd-pleasing moments and the legitimate reawakening of a long-dormant baseball town.
Now, after a 5-6 homestand, there’s no guarantee the flag-waving fanbase will get to see a playoff game in front of their own eyes. The long-suffering Bucco partisans deserved better in what could’ve been the final baseball game in Pittsburgh this year, and this year’s team certainly merited a more rousing sendoff.
The Pirates’ predicament, in which the entire six-month season will likely come down to one game, one play or even one pitch, could’ve been avoided. The Bucs are 19-23 since reaching their high-water mark, losing six games of ground to the Cardinals in the process. A simple .500 record in those 42 games would’ve been enough to forge a tie for the division lead at this point, providing legitimate hope for a berth in the best-of-five NLDS.
All is not lost, as the Bucs travel to Chicago and Cincinnati to end the season. If they win more than they lose over that span, PNC Park could finally break its postseason maiden. Even the division crown is still possible, as the Cardinals play the surging Nationals over the next three days.
No matter what this week brings, 2013 will be remembered as the year the Pirates returned to championship contention. But at the moment, it’s natural to lament what might have been.