In watching Sunday's regular season finale, I couldn't help but think back to March and April and think about how far things have come for this Pirate team in the last six months. In spring training, I was really down on the team because I thought that they were in line to waste another year of Andrew McCutchen's prime, ticking a year closer to 2018 without really competing. They came out of the gate terribly in April, of course, with that 1-5 start and an anemic offense that seemed to be on the way to validating everyone's worst fears before the second home stand even started.
The turning point of the early season had to be the Mike McKenry game, I think. You certainly remember it; with a chance to sweep the pre-season division favorite Reds and get to .500 for the first time, the Pirates fell behind 4-0 in the second inning and were staring down the barrel of a 5-0 deficit in the bottom of the seventh when Mike McKenry lead off with a solo homer. By the time McKenry batted again in the eighth, the Pirates had cut the Reds' lead to 6-4 and his two-run homer tied the game at six. The Pirates kept on scoring and won the game 10-7. On the season's first Sunday, the were 1-5. On the season's second Sunday, they were 6-6.
Six days after that, the Pirates beat the Braves 3-1 in another comeback (they were down 1-0 in the sixth when Andrew McCutchen doubled Starling Marte home, then Gaby Sanchez homered to score both McCutchen and himself) to put their reecord at 9-8. That was the first time that they'd been above .500 all year and I distinctly remember this thought popping into my head out of nowhere that Saturday night: In so many years, we mark the point that the Pirates fall below .500, because it's assumed that they'll never get their heads above water again. What if the opposite happens this year? What if the Pirates never see .500 again because they're on the right side of it?
I laughed that off. It seemed like such a throwaway thought at the time that I didn't bother to put it on WHYGAVS and I'm not certain if I even threw it together into a tweet. The Pirates won again the next day to move their record to 10-8, though, and they never did look back. I'm not sure when I really realized they were legitimate contenders. If you check the playoff odds chart, it was the nine game winning streak in June that vaulted them into odds-on playoff favorites, but I think that it was probably the series at PNC Park against the Cardinals at the end of July that started to make this year really feel different for me. The way the Pirates roared out of the gate in that series to just blow the doors off of the Cardinals four days in a row was something entirely different than Pirate teams we've seen in the past.
94 wins. Let's take a second to appreciate that. The first winning Pirate team in a generation didn't settle for stumbling to 82 wins to create a false celebration in a mediocre season. They didn't make it into the playoffs by winning a weak division. They won more games than all but four teams in all of baseball. It would be easy to point out a handful of games that the Pirates probably should have won that would've given them the edge over the Cardinals in the NL Central, but that ignores the fact that every team has their own handful of those games, I think. The reality is this: the Cardinals finished the season tied with the Red Sox for baseball's best record, and they didn't clinch first place in the division until the season's 160th game. That's how good the Pirates were this year.
Of course, the Pirates' season is not over. In fact, we'll probably remember it by whatever it is that happens on Tuesday and hopefully beyond. For now, though, let's take a minute and just appreciate the 2013 regular season for what it was. The Pirates won 94 games and they're going to the playoffs. It's been one heck of a fun ride.