The Garr Report: What Could’ve Been

October baseball. Something the Pirates don’t get to enjoy too often, but because of the scheduling this year, like everyone else, they will play one series in October. That’s all they’ll play however.

PITTSBURGH, PA – JULY 24: James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on from the dug out during the game against the Chicago Cubs on July 24, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-1. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

In a season that looked even more hopeful and promising than 2011, Pirates fans are once again shaking their heads and wondering how 20 years have gone by without a winning season.

Buster Olney tweeted it best, saying that the three fan bases that feel the worst at the end of the 2012 season would be 3) Boston, 2) Cleveland and 1) Pittsburgh, tweeting that “Cubs fans just feel numb at this point.”

I thought those rankings were fair.

As a Pittsburgh resident for almost my entire life, I know how happy and excited Pirates fans were this summer and how awful and deflated they feel now that their baseball team will once again fail to win 82, games for the 20th consecutive season.

They sealed it in prototypical Pirates fashion, getting no-hit in your own stadium, something that’s not only never been done in PNC Park, but hadn’t been done to any of the Pirates teams over the 20 years of despair.

I have the Tigers, a playoff team. I’m a Tigers fan first, but if Pittsburgh and Detroit aren’t playing each other, then I’ll gladly root for the Buccos on the side. Watching them last year was a blast. Watching them take two out of three from Boston in front of a record crowd was something special. At their highest peak of the season – seven games above .500 at 51-44 – they were in first place by half a game.

The city of Pittsburgh really believed; like Andy Reid really believes in Michael Vick or like the fat guy who treats himself to chocolate cake because he did two sit-ups instead of one earlier in the day.

Then it happened, July 26th, 2011.

The Pirates lose in 19 innings to the Braves thanks to home plate umpire Jerry Meals making one of the worst calls in Major League Baseball history. The Pirates then lose 10 of 11, and only win 19 of their last 61 games. I thought it couldn’t be any worse than that.

This year, I didn’t know what to expect early on. They weren’t going to win the division; after Pujols and Fielder had left it was Cincinnati’s to lose. The way the Pirates started offensively I wouldn’t have minded signing a group of girl scouts or even offering Air Bud to step away from the court and grab a bat. The Bucs’ offense was ranked worse than most minor league teams. I was expecting a long season.

When June hit, the bats woke up. They started scoring. The pitching became dominant. A.J. Burnett and James McDonald looked unhittable at times. Once again Pirates fans seemed to be buying in, I was hooked.

I talked about it on the radio; I talked about it with all of my Reds friends. Yes, Cincinnati will win the division, but the Pirates will take a wildcard. They won’t collapse. I completely ignored the 19 consecutive years of losing. Big mistake.

In 2011, it was easy to point to one guy, Meals, and put all the blame on him for the Pirates collapse. This time there was no one fall-guy, a scapegoat that Pirates fans could point to this year. In fact, the Pirates WON a 19-inning game this year. They even made more appearances in the TBS MLB Playoff commercials than the Reds who had already clinched the division. There was no possible way the Pirates could collapse.

They of course did. Clearly the most frustrating thing is not the fact that they missed the playoffs, but that once again, for the 20th straight year, they’re on the wrong side of 81-81.

The Cardinals got red hot near the end of the season. Even Milwaukee, Philadelphia and LA all made a push towards the postseason. Certainly the Pirates were going to falter, but to blow another above-500 opportunity? After being 16 games above 500? That hurts.

Sure enough, anyone can go back in the schedule and point to a game that the Pirates really should’ve won. And with only four or five more wins, the Pirates would’ve snapped the losing streak.

So what better way to remind everyone of these “oh so close” games. The ones where Pirates fans shook their heads in disgust or looked at the scoreboard and asked “Really?” Here are five games from the Pirates season that left a worse taste in Pittsburgh’s mouth than the bar of soap left Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”

5. Wednesday April 25th, Rockies 2 Pirates 1, J-Mac loses no-hit bid

It’s hard to remember this one, not because it was in April, but because it was when McDonald was good. The Pirates are 7-9 going into this game, and after a tough 2-6 start the Bucs are on a nice 5-3 stretch. McDonald walks three but holds his own, which is the only thing the Pirates can rely on these days since their offense is off the charts awful. Troy Tulowitzki finally breaks up the no-no in the 7th, and J-Mac loses his cool. A wild pitch and a sac-fly later, the Rockies take a 1-0 lead. The Bucs realize their strategy of playing for the 0-0 tie won’t work, so Pedro Alvarez homers to tie it. The Pirates leave runners on base the same inning and can’t grab the lead, so Colorado decides to take it in the eighth with another sac-fly, and win 2-1. The Pirates had a lot of positives after this game, but perhaps it was a sneak-peek for what was to come down the stretch in August and September.

4. Monday July 23rd, Cubs 2 Pirates 0, “Wasn’t he the football player?”

Coming in to the game the Pirates are riding a five-game-winning streak. Jeff Samardzija, the ex-Notre Dame football star, has a 4.57 ERA. Somehow, someway, he goes eight innings allowing just one hit, throwing 99 pitches. Alfonso Soriano doubles twice and drives in one run, each time; giving the Cubs a 2-0 victory. Samardzija will go on to win only two of final nine starts, leaving Pirate fans thinking: We just got shutout by a football player.

3. Friday September 28th, Reds 1 Pirates 0, Homer Bailey Throws a No-Hitter

At this point in the season, the Pirates need to win out to clinch 82-80. Everyone knows it won’t happen, but people still show up. Going up against Homer Bailey, a pitcher whose been great on the road and is having a great September, a no-hitter wouldn’t be as shocking as a Phillip Humber perfect game. The Reds get runners on early, but only manage to score one in a game that Pirates starter AJ Burnett will pitch very well in. It’s at the plate where Burnett shows off his true skills, bunting foul for the second out after Clint Barmes reached safely on an error. In the seventh, the Pirates show some life again. McCutchen walks and steals second with only one out, but decides to steal third instead of relying on Garrett Jones to bring him in. Jones flies out to end the inning and Homer Bailey completes the no-hitter in the final two innings to really put the nail in the Pirates coffin.

While this is a game where the Pirates didn’t have a lot of opportunities; other than the ones where the players walked up to the plate with a bat…  it’s still hard to swallow. In a season that was going to be “the year,” getting no-hit by the division champs at home couldn’t have summed up Pittsburgh’s collapse any better.

2. Sunday September 16th, Cubs 13, Pirates 9, Pirates blow two huge leads

Losing to the Cubs is bad enough, but when a team has leads of 6-1 and 9-5 and loses, it’s just plain embarrassing. The Cubs had the early 1-0 lead, but Rod Barajas, again, of all people, gives the Bucs a 2-1 lead with a homerun in the second. McCutchen drives in a run to make it 3-1 in the same inning. The Pirates make it 6-1 later in the game courtesy of Alvarez and Starling Marte, and it seems like the Bucs will win. The Cubs have different plans. Led by Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs cut the lead to 6-5 in the fifth. Alvarez homers again, trying to knock out the Cubs by himself, making it 9-5. The Cubs fight back, and score eight runs over three innings to get the 13-9 victory. At 73-72, it would be one of the last days Pittsburgh would be above .500.

1. Friday August 10th, Padres 9 Pirates 8, J-Mac’s human

The Pirates are 15 games above .500 at this point, and McDonald, while on a 2 game skid of his own, is still 10-5 with a 3.42 ERA. After an early Padres 1-0 lead, the Pirates bats come alive, thanks to homeruns from Garrett Jones in the third and Travis Snider in a six-run fourth. The Pirates quickly find out that a 7-1 cushion is not nearly good enough for McDonald, who allows the Padres to tie it in the fifth, which includes a three-run homer from Chase Headley. Before I can blame my friend Nick, who invited me to the game, on his awful record at PNC Park, Rod Barajas of all people gives the Bucs the lead again with an RBI single. Chase Headley seems to be in a comeback homerun kind of mood however and gives the Padres a 9-8 lead in the seventh, which will eventually be the final score. Fans can sense the beginning of the end for J-Mac who tweets after the game “no one feels worst then me.” Those kinds of grammatical errors will hurt your season every time.

Five losses, and many more I’m sure, depending on your list, that prevented a season that looked so promising. Like every year for the past twenty, Pirates fans will have to wait until next year to see if the streak ends. They’re used to it. Not to the point where they’re “numb” like Cubs fans, but they’re used to it. Bucs fans will be back and eagerly waiting and hoping that this year will be the year. What separates this year from the other nineteen is perhaps that this one hurt the most.

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