One of nature’s rarer sights: Pirates celebrating in their natural habitat.
I hate it when I get a column idea when I’m already halfway through writing a different column.
Normally, it’s not too big an issue, as my columns are rarely time sensitive, but it happens. For example, I wanted to write a column about the Pirates’ recent record-setting performance of 17 consecutive losing seasons. As I’m sure many out there in reader land already know, by losing their 82nd game of the season last week, Pittsburgh ensured that it would become the first team in MLB history to be on the wrong side of .500 for 17 straight years.
I thought I’d spend my weekly effort putting Pittsburgh’s plight in perspective. It didn’t quite gel the way I wanted it too, though. Some of the info makes good nuggets, but the overall effect was wearying. After 1,000 lifeless words, I had a brainstorm: look, everyone can talk about how bad the Pirates have been. How about I add something nice to say about The Team That Quality Forgot?
One thing I should note. I didn’t have enough time to research it as I’d like to. This was an afternoon thing. I’m sure some Pirate faithful can think of a few good ones I missed. Still, I like what I came up with. At any rate, here are the best moments for a team that essentially has had no good moments since George H. W. Bush was president:
10. The biggest win
June 11, 2005: Pirates 18, Devil Rays 2. You have to admit, this sounds like the most depressing match up in the history of interleague play. The team in the midst of 17 consecutive losing seasons taking on a team suffering through 10 straight sucky campaigns of its own.
This was actually a fairly close game until the bottom of the fifth, but the Pirates scored every inning from them on out, usually multiple runs per inning. It ended as both Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive output and margin of victory in the last 17 years.
It’s rather symbolically fitting that the Pirates had an even bigger win on September 26, 1992, when they beat the Mets 19-2. That day Pittsburgh clinched no worse than a share of the division lead, something that obviously they haven’t had to worry about since.
9. (TIE) Bring me the head of Bernie the Brewer!
July 20, 2009: Pirates 8, Brewers 5. July 22, 2009: Pirates 8, Brewers 7. Sometimes one team just has another’s number. That was certainly the case with the way the Brewers matched up against the Pirates in 2008-09. Milwaukee won 14 of 15 contests in 2008, including the last 12 in a row. The Brewers then opened the season by taking the first five games against Pittsburgh.
On July 20, 2009, 424 days after the Pirates’ last victory over Milwaukee, Pittsburgh finally got vengeance. It really wasn’t a great game, as the Pirates burst out to an early 6-1 lead in part thanks to some shoddy Milwaukee defense, but it had to be one of the team’s most satisfying romps in recent years.
Two days later, the Pirates beat the Brewers in a game that actually was interesting on its own merits as Pittsburgh won on a walk-off homer by Brandon Moss‘s to give the team its first series victory over Milwaukee in 22 months.
8. Eleven in a row
September 22, 1996: Pirates 11, Cubs 3. Among their more impressive achievements over the last too-many years, the Pirates won 11 straight games once. By beating the Cubs in this game, Pittsburgh completed what’s tied for the franchise’s longest winning streak in the last 40 years.
Not only was it too late to help the team, but it came so late in the season that it couldn’t even gurgle up any false hopes for the postseason (whereas a big streak in April or May could heavily inflate the season’s early winning percentage). This streak prevented the team from losing 90 games on the year, but that was ultimately all it did.
7. (TIE) First place in July
July 14, 1997: Pirates 5, Mets 4. July 15, 1997, Pirates 4, Mets 3. Not surprisingly, the Pirates have almost never been in first place beyond April since 1992. Rather surprisingly, the previous sentence needed the word “almost.”
In 1997, the Pirates briefly found themselves atop the NL Central, a fact that says more about the weakness of the NL Central than the strength of the Pirates. A few weeks earlier they had been in first with a 33-36 record. Pathetic, wasn’t it?
They were in first place again when July 14 began, albeit with a 45-45 record (only now, with a winning record!) This pair of come-from-behind, late-inning rallies helped the Pirates stay in first place. Naturally, it would not last. By the time they notched win no. 48, they were under .500 and trailing the eventual division-winning Astros. Still, this was the franchise’s high water mark in the last 17 years, and they were impressive comeback wins.
6. (TIE) The promise of Oliver Perez
June 26, 2004 Pirates 1, Reds 0. September 9, 2004: Pirates 3, Astros 1. I’m going on a tangent for a second to get on the old soapbox. Oliver Perez symbolizes why the Pirates haven’t had a season worth a damn in so long.
Sure, they play in a small market, and if nothing else that gives a team less margin for error when assembling its squad. Yeah, they play in a town that generally doesn’t seem to be especially baseball crazed. Pittsburgh hasn’t ranked in the top four in attendance in almost a half-century. Even all their success in the 1970s couldn’t get them better than middle-of-the-pack attendance, and that swiftly went down when the team’s fortunes faded.
However, all of the above could also be used as excuses by the Minnesota Twins: they play in a small market and their monstrosity of a stadium has kept attendance down for years. Yet the Twins win almost every year while the Pirates never do.
Why is there a difference? Minnesota has a plan to develop players, while Pittsburgh’s brightest stars soon dim.
Perez was spectacular when he was on. The victory over Houston featured the highest game score by a Pirate pitcher in a non-complete game in over a half-century and the most strikeouts, 14, by any Pirate in a single game since 1985. He was almost as good in the Cincinnati game, with 13 strikeouts over seven innings. No other Pirate has topped 12 whiffs in their death spiral.
Perez was great that year, but he hasn’t been since. Admittedly, he had trouble before and after Pittsburgh and so can be written off as one of those things, except he fits a pattern. Remember when Kris Benson was a promising young pitcher some touted as a possible Cy Young winner? Ian Snell was far better at age 25. This is the first year Zach Duke looks like even a shred of the pitcher he once promised to be.
Sure, pitchers are always a risky bet, but it isn’t just Pittsburgh’s pitchers. Maybe the best example was Aramis Ramirez. He was a sensational third baseman at age 23, but when he injured his foot the team stupidly made him play through it. His performance suffered, and the team responded by trading him for dross to the Cubs (along with Kenny Lofton) just in time for him to recover. Pittsburgh is as bad at player development as Minnesota is good at it.
You can find some guys who pan out (Brian Giles had a terrific run), but by and large Pittsburgh strikes me as a team that doesn’t know how to help its players reach their potential.
5. Best pitcher’s duel. June 10, 2008
Pirates 1, Blue Jays 0 (12).
I have to admit, while I normally prefer slugfests, there is something very cool about 1-0 games. Extra-inning 1-0 games are thus inherently cooler. Weighing in at 12 innings, this was Pittsburgh’s longest 1-0 victory since 1989, and thus one of its coolest victories.
One downside should be noted: the winning run scored on an error. You’d like it to end a bit more heroically than that, but you’ll take what you can get sometimes.
4. The Pittsburgh marathon
May 27, 2006: Pirates 8, Astros 7 (18). This was not only the longest game the Pirates won since 1992, it’s the longest game they’ve played since 1989. They haven’t taken part in a longer game since the 1970s.
It wasn’t just long, but also a hard-fought game with some nice back-and-forth action. The Pirates led 2-0, and 5-4 early on, but it was tied 5-5 after seven. Both teams scored a run in the eighth to send it to extra frames, 6-6, when pitchers clamped down on the game. It looked like the Astros would have the day when they finally scored a run in the 17th inning, but the Pirates answered back in the bottom of the inning before getting the game-winning run in the next frame.
3. (TIE) The ballad of 12-11
August 1, 2003: Pirates 12, Rockies 11. March 31, 2008: Pirates 12, Braves 11 (12). July 12, 2008: Pirates 12, Cardinals 11 (10). This trio could probably qualify as three different entries, but they’re all so close I just lumped them together.
They were not only close slugfests, but all had something a little special to set them apart from your standard 12-11 massacre of pitching. In the 2003 game, the Pirates trailed 11-6 entering the bottom of the ninth (that’s right, despite it involving the Rockies this avalanche of offensive did not take place in the Rockies). Four of their runs scored with two outs, (and that’s not including the run that scored on the same play as the second out of the inning). As comebacks go, it was monumental.
The Braves game actually has a few special features. First, it was the first day of the season. Suffice it to say, allowing 12 runs was not how Bobby Cox expected to begin the year. Also, this game also had a memorable bottom of the ninth. This time, however, it was Pittsburgh on the receiving end of things as Atlanta scored five in the ninth to tied the game, 8-8. It stood that way until the 12th inning, when the Pirates scored three, and the Braves responded with a pair of their own. The tying run died on first, allowing Pittsburgh to sneak away with one.
The final game also had an incredible ninth inning, as the Pirates scored four runs to tie it. Actually, they also scored a pair in the bottom of the eighth. Tony LaRussa must have been fuming: his team led by six runs with four outs left to go and Pittsburgh took it to extra innings. The fun didn’t end there, as Troy Glaus put the Cards back ahead in the top of the 10th with a homer, only to see the Pirates win on a two-run homer by pinch hitter Jason Michaels a few minutes later.
July 12, 1997: Pirates 3, Astros 0 (10). The only thing wrong with this game is that Pittsburgh didn’t score in time to give Francisco Cordova his richly deserved win. He threw nine innings of not only shutout ball but also no-hit ball. He allowed two walks and hit a batter, but no one lashed out a single. Unfortunately for him, Pittsburgh couldn’t score a run in regulation, sending the game into extra innings.
Relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon kept the no-hitter going for one more inning and picked up the win when the Pirates blasted a three-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. Cordova and Rincon combined for the team’s only no-hitter since John Candelaria in 1976. Cordova’s game score of 95 is also the best by any Pirate pitcher in over 40 years.
1. Never say die
July 28, 2001: Pirates 9, Astros 8. The previously listed 12-11 games all featured miraculous comebacks in the bottom of the ninth, but there is no question which rally was the most spectacular of all.
For eight-and-a-half innings, this game was pretty boring, as Houston entered the final part of the final frame, cruising to an apparent 8-2 victory. When the first two Pirate batters led the inning with fly outs, the end seemed near. Who ever heard of a team coming back to win when trailing by six runs with no one on in the bottom of the ninth?
Well, first Kevin Young doubled, but that didn’t matter. Next Pat Meares, of all people, slugged a two-run homer. According to WPA, Pittsburgh’s chance of winning rose from zero percent to zero percent with that blast. They were down by too much.
Adam Hyzdu greeted a relief pitcher with a single, and then Tike Redman drew a walk, but this was merely a nuisance, not a threat. At most you could give the Pirates credit for not rolling over. Their win expectancy now stood at a whopping one percent. Big deal.
Jack Wilson singled in the next run to make it 8-5. Yeah, I’m sure Astros manager Larry Dierker was upset by now. This game should’ve been over with a while ago, and instead Jason Kendall walked to the plate as the game’s tying run.
Time for closer Billy Wagner to enter. No one expected he’d be needed that long ago, but that’s how it goes. Fortune still favored the Astros, though. They had a three-run lead with only one out to go—plus Billy Wagner hadn’t blown a save in nearly three months.
Be that as it may, his third pitch hit Jason Kendall, putting the tying run aboard. Even worse, the next batter was the most fearsome hitter to don the Pittsburgh uniform since Barry Bonds left for greener pastures: Brian Giles. With Houston leading 8-5, Giles connected on Wagner’s second pitcher for an unlikely walk-off grand slam.
The achievement was so great that Pittsburgh players and fans can be forgiven if they forgot that the victory gave the Pirates a record of only 40-62. Still, for one glorious moment, there was nothing better than to be a Pittsburgh Pirate.