I know I should be grateful this morning, less than 24 hours after the longest Pittsburgh Pirates season in 20 years came to dispiriting end in Game 5 of a National League Division Series.
Just eight days after dominating the Reds in a winner-take-all game at PNC Park, the Bucs saw the other side of elimination baseball Wednesday night at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. To their credit, the Pirates did their best to immediately acknowledge how tremendous a season it was, as a team that won just 57 games in 2010 and still fell short of the .500 mark last year won 94 times this summer and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
But for this Pirates fan, there will be time for positive thinking over the winter, because I’m lamenting the missed opportunity. The Bucs led the best-of-five series with the Cardinals two games to one and were one hit away from clinching the series in Monday’s Game 4 at a packed PNC Park.
Instead, the Pirates had their season come down to nine innings, with all the fickleness of small sample sizes and luck liable to determine who would advance. Game 5 played out in just that fashion, with Pittsburgh lining into two double plays and the Cardinals getting some good batted-ball fortune to accompany a pair of two-run homers.
Credit where it’s due: St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright took care of business in this series, and the Cardinals hitters blasted at least one dinger in each of the five games. The Pirates had lopsidedly out-homered the Redbirds during their regular-season matchups, but that turned around in the NLDS.
Still, the two teams played 24 times in 2013, with each side winning 12. As much as the national narrative portrayed the Pirates as this scrappy underdog team, they had as good of a chance as the Cardinals to advance. This was a solid Bucs team, one that could’ve easily made a run to the World Series.
And that’s the part that hurts. For all the well-earned optimism surrounding the organization’s future, the 2014 Pirates could quickly find themselves on the outside of the postseason field, like this year’s Rangers or Nationals – two talented clubs that couldn’t get it together for one reason or another.
After three years of constant improvement at the major-league level, it will take some serious work to improve upon the 94 wins this team accumulated. 94 might be good enough to win the NL Central next September, but I wouldn’t bet on it with the Cardinals, Reds and the looming specter of the big-market Cubs to contend with. Heck, the Brewers could be a couple of pitchers away from hopping right back into contention.
2013 may not have been the year for the Pirates to challenge for a championship; nevertheless, it was certainly one of a limited number for the current group. While they may not have beaten the talented Dodgers for the NL pennant, I would’ve liked their chances to employ their deep starting rotation in a best-of-seven series.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ride following the Pirates this year. Now it’s over, and the challenge to stay among MLB’s elite is on the horizon. There will be no sneaking up on teams from now on.
Maybe that’s why the Cardinals celebrated so wildly late Wednesday night: it only gets tougher from here.
What do you take away from this Pirates season? Leave a note in the comments.