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5 things that changed the season for Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- For the third straight year, the Pirates are heading to the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, a win-or-go-home showdown with the Cubs and, presumably, NL Cy Young Award candidate Jake Arrieta.

While the Bucs didn't accomplish the goal they set at the beginning of the year -- winning the NL Central -- they have put together a remarkable year. They'll enter the final weekend of the regular season with a 96-63 record that is the second-best mark in the Majors. The most recent time they won this many games, Barry Bonds was manning left field at Three Rivers Stadium.

Now, the Pirates' entire season could come down to one moment in one game Wednesday night. Before looking at what lies ahead of the Bucs, however, let's first look back at the moments that helped them get here.

1. '0-for-freaking-4'
Andrew McCutchen has typically been a slow starter -- by his high standard, at least. But even after a left knee injury limited him in Spring Training, nobody expected McCutchen to begin the year mired in the kind of month-long slump he endured.

After his first 25 games, McCutchen carried a .185 average and a .574 OPS. On May 5, he reached his low point, going hitless in four at-bats in a 7-1 loss to the Reds at PNC Park.

McCutchen said afterward he was "sick and tired of going 0-for-freaking-4," taking responsibility for the club's scuffling offense. But he also made a vow that night: "Once it gets going, it ain't going to stop."

Video: [email protected]: McCutchen asseses his early season struggles

Sure enough, McCutchen has been a force in the third spot of the Pirates' order ever since. Since then, he has hit .315 (145-for-freaking-461, if you will) with a .955 OPS, 20 home runs and 82 RBIs.

Since McCutchen started hitting, he hasn't stopped. But as their star center fielder struggled to start the year, so did the Pirates. That is, until …

2. Easy as 1-2-3
The Bucs had an off-day in Pittsburgh on May 21, sitting at home with an 18-22 record that did not nearly match their preseason expectations. The Mets were coming to town over the weekend with their rotation full of powerful young arms.

But the Pirates had an answer -- three of them, actually -- in Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. With those three starting, the Bucs swept the series against the Mets in dominant fashion. They won by a combined score of 21-4, moved above .500 two days later, and they haven't looked back since.

Video: [email protected]: Liriano strikes out 12 in six innings

Much of the Pirates' first-half success could be credited to their pitching staff, particularly the trio of Cole, Burnett and Liriano atop their rotation. Cole and Burnett were each selected to their first All-Star Game, while Liriano -- the club's Opening Day starter -- posted a 2.98 ERA before the break.

The sweep of the Mets also reflected the Pirates' absolute dominance outside of the NL Central. Within their own division, the Bucs lost season series to the Cardinals (9-10), Cubs (8-11), Brewers (9-10) and Reds (6-10 with three games remaining). But they went 24-9 against the NL East, 27-6 versus the NL West and 13-7 in Interleague Play.

3. Statement series
The Cardinals came to Pittsburgh on July 9 with the All-Star break only four days away, heightening the anticipation of what was widely billed at the time as the biggest series in PNC Park history. Somehow, it lived up to the hype.

St. Louis won the first game, opening up a 5 1/2-game lead in the NL Central. The Pirates stormed back and won Game 2 behind Cole. The next two games were perhaps the most memorable of the Bucs' season: two nationally televised, extra-inning walk-off thrillers that reinforced Pittsburgh's belief that the Pirates wouldn't be intimidated by the Cards.

McCutchen ended the first game with one swing, launching a two-run homer to center field in the bottom of the 14th inning. The next night, Gregory Polanco singled to right to cap a three-run rally in the 10th inning against Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal.

Video: Must C Clutch: Cutch lifts walk-off homer in 14th

4. The Kang Show
The Pirates were dealt a potentially crushing blow when shortstop Jordy Mercer went down with a left MCL sprain on July 19, the result of then-Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez sliding into him at second base to break up a double play. But they hardly missed a beat, due in large part to the emergence of Jung Ho Kang.

From the time Mercer went down until the day Kang suffered an even more serious injury on a similar play, Kang hit .313/.362/.542 in 52 games. He also proved to be an adequate defensive shortstop and an above-average third baseman, offering rare positional flexibility for a hitter of his caliber.

Video: Huntington and Hurdle discuss addition of Kang

Despite the devastating way his season ended, Kang's rookie campaign was a revelation for the Pirates, who took a bold risk by making him the first position player to jump straight into the Majors from the Korean Baseball Organization.

Kang hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers and 58 RBIs in his debut, bolstering the Bucs' depth while dispelling questions about whether he could hit in the Majors or fit in with the Pirates.

5. The reinforcements
General manager Neal Huntington nearly batted 1.000 with his offseason moves. He signed Kang, traded for standout catcher Francisco Cervelli, brought back Burnett and acquired useful contributors in Antonio Bastardo, Arquimedes Caminero and Sean Rodriguez.

Somehow, Huntington managed to match his offseason effort at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Pirates purchased reliever Joe Blanton from the Royals. They solidified the left side of their injury-depleted infield by bringing back veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez in a trade with the Brewers.

Just before the July 31 Deadline, Huntington pulled off trades for setup man Joakim Soria, left-hander J.A. Happ and first baseman Michael Morse. Happ was acquired as emergency rotation depth when Burnett went down with a flexor strain, but Happ has turned into one of the club's best second-half starters.

Video: [email protected]: Happ's seven shutout innings earn the win

None of the acquisitions were heralded like the high-profile acquisitions of, say, David Price or Troy Tulowitzki by the Blue Jays. But they have all worked out in Pittsburgh's favor, improving the club for the stretch run of the season and -- the Pirates hope -- for the postseason.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, A.J. Burnett, Andrew McCutchen, Jung Ho Kang, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole