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Bucs played up to Hurdle's lofty expectations

Pirates post first winning season in 20 years, advance to NLDS

PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates reconvened in Pirate City for Spring Training in early February, manager Clint Hurdle was at a loss for words. A year earlier, he had already tried "Finish," after the Bucs' 2011 late-season collapse. So that was out.

So, instead, Hurdle went for a number: "95."

In time, a great debate would rage over whether Hurdle had actually predicted that the Pirates would have 95 wins, or had merely cited that as the number that would be required for them to reach the promised land of the postseason. Whatever the intent, the skipper earned his Nostradamus stripes.

The Pirates' 6-2 victory over Cincinnati in the National League Wild Card Game was their 95th of the year.

The events of that memorable night in blacked-out PNC Park wonderfully captured the emotions and principals of Pittsburgh's baseball renaissance, as a succinct summary of how the Pirates went from 20 years of exasperation to a summer of exaltation.

Andrew McCutchen got his daily double of hits. Russell Martin smoked a pair of home runs. Francisco Liriano's slider disappeared for seven innings. Jason Grilli was perfect in the ninth. A sellout crowd brandished Jolly Rogers.

Oh, and the Pirates scored a big knockout despite hitting .125 with runners in scoring position.

There, in a nutshell, was the 2013 season, in all its glory and gore. There was plenty of both, often from the same individuals, as the Bucs had to weather rough terrain before reaching the clearing of October.

"Score one more run than the other team," was one of Hurdle's mantras, and his team lived up to it.

The Pirates did not have the sort of identity other teams attract. Some are offensive juggernauts, others are defined by pitching, still others depend on defense. The Pirates were the whatever-it-takes team. They won by scores of 10-9, 1-0 and everything in between.

"Resilient" is an overused adjective in today's sports, but if any team had a right to its copyright, these Pirates did. They lost pitchers -- James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez, even Grilli for a long stretch -- and crushing games and kept bouncing back.

They needed eight different starting pitchers by Mother's Day. They were destroyed in an early-September series in St. Louis, outscored 26-10 in a sweep, and thereafter won 13 of their last 20.

And, of course, they came out of the gate 1-5 -- a potentially destructive getaway for a team coming off consecutive late-season folds -- and soon were burning rubber.

Their fabulous season ended -- and their next chapter began -- with Game 5 of the NL Division Series in St. Louis.

McCutchen looked around the clubhouse, concurrently saw low chins and upheld heads, and proclaimed, "We are the team that made the change in this franchise, not the team that lost again. We're the team that won. This was just the beginning for us."

Record: 94-68, 2nd in NL Central

What went right: The care and feeding of Gerrit Cole, the 2011 overall No. 1 Draft pick, was perfect. He came up in mid-June and wound up tied for second on the staff with 10 wins. ... The gamble on Liriano, the willingness to wait on his fractured right arm to heal, paid off huge. The lefty was not able to make his first start until May 11, and two months later already led the team in wins. ... Grilli, a first-time closer at 36, delivered 33 saves in 35 opportunities and joined another long shot, Mark Melancon, in forming a dynamite end-game tandem. ... Pedro Alvarez made great strides, tying for the league lead with 36 homers being less impressive than his ability to cut down on his big swing with two strikes and deliver key late-game hits. ... Making Martin the highest-priced free agent in the team's modest spending history confounded most, but he was the total package on the field -- his infectuous winning spirit -- and behind the plate. Martin got the most out of pitchers and led MLB catchers by throwing out 36 runners one season after the Pirates had been the Majors' worst at that. ... Starling Marte lived up to projections as the leadoff hitter -- despite missing a month with a bruised hand, he scored as many runs (83) by himself in 135 games as eight different leadoff men had totaled in 162 games in 2012. ... Giving rookie relievers Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris responsibility and the ball added to bullpen depth and flexibility. ... The late-August play for veteran Marlon Byrd provided the desired lift.

What went wrong: The late-August play for another veteran, Justin Morneau, misfired, on two levels. He was installed as the everyday cleanup hitter, but did not produce like one -- with a .312 slugging percentage and three RBIs -- his presence made Garrett Jones and his powerful if inconsistent bat disappear. ... McDonald began as the Bucs' No. 3 starter, but hopes that he could come out of his '12 second-half tailspin quickly vanished and, by May, so did he. ... Deja vu? NL All-Star Jeff Locke had a second-half meltdown [2-5, 6.12] eerily similar to that of McDonald [3-5. 7.12] a year ago. ... With Gaby Sanchez unable to keep up his April heat and even with Byrd's late contributions, the Bucs got a total of only 33 homers from two of the biggest power positions on the field, first base and right field.

Biggest surprise: The second-half fade notwithstanding, it had to be Locke. A loss in his first start of the season set his career record at 1-7. In his next 19 starts, he was 9-2 with a 1.95 ERA, leading the surge atop the NL Central, removing any anxiety from the loss of Rodriguez and making the All-Star Team.

Hitter of the Year: On an overall better team, he did not stand out as much as in earlier years, but McCutchen's consistency remained the team's lifeline -- and could very well end in him becoming Pittsburgh's first NL MVP since 1990 [Barry Bonds]. McCutchen's overall numbers hid the fact he followed a quiet first month [.217] with five loud months [.336]. He had 60 multihit games.

Pitcher of the Year: Liriano came within a few scattered stumbles of being the NL pitcher of the year. In most of his 26 starts, he was not only unbeatable, but unhittable, going seven-plus innings while allowing four or fewer hits 11 times. For an interesting perspective, remove his poorest start in each of the five months he was active. The remainder for the other 22 starts -- including his Wild Card Game gem -- is a 16-4 record with a 1.51 ERA.

Rookie of the Year: Wilson's claim to this honor was dramatically usurped by Cole in September, when the 23-year-old righty emerged as not only the great hope for the future, but as the ace of the present. He went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA down the stretch, and along the way ...

Defining moment: ... provided the biggest U-turn of the Pirates' resilient season on Sept. 9 by outdueling Yu Darvish in Arlington for a 1-0 victory, on the immediate heels of the aforementioned debacle in St. Louis. That was also the Pirates' 82nd win of the season -- formally putting their first winning season since 1992 in the books. Cole had also started win No. 81, ending 20 seasons of losing, five days earlier. A metaphor for where they go from here? Help yourself.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Andrew McCutchen