CHICAGO -- Back in January, team president Frank Coonelly sat in front of a crowd of fans at PNC Park and passionately agreed that a 40-year drought since Pittsburgh’s last World Series victory in 1979 would be “too damn long.” The same day, general manager Neal Huntington reiterated that a championship was the Pirates’ priority.
“If we don’t win a World Series,” Huntington said before the season began, “we have not accomplished our goal.”
For the 40th consecutive season, the Pirates fell short of that goal. The Bucs were officially eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, though they fell out of the race long before their 14-1 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. On Tuesday night in San Francisco, the club secured its third losing season in the last four years and its 23rd losing record in the last 27 years.
“It stinks. That’s definitely a bummer,” shortstop Kevin Newman said. “But we do have 13 more games. We’ll just show up every day and continue to compete.”
Saturday’s elimination-clinching loss fittingly featured two defining traits of the Pirates’ season: They were banged up, and they could not stop their opponent from scoring.
Pittsburgh has allowed at least 14 runs in consecutive games for the first time since June 23-24, 1950, against a Brooklyn Dodgers team that featured Jackie Robinson batting cleanup.
It was the 28th time in 149 games this season that the Pirates permitted at least 10 runs, tying the modern-era franchise record set by their 1930 club. No team has surrendered double-digit runs as often as the Pirates since the Rangers (30 games) and Orioles (29 games) in 2000.
Manager Clint Hurdle said he wasn’t concerned about the cumulative effect of those lopsided losses, but admitted they are representative of a pitching staff whose lack of depth has been exposed when its starters have struggled.
“That’s been problematic. It is what it is,” Hurdle said. “Nobody’s not trying to do well. However, the recipe for success is to get your starter into a game where you can use your bullpen when you want to.”
The lineup was without first baseman Josh Bell (left groin discomfort), center fielder Starling Marte (sprained left wrist) and catcher Jacob Stallings (back tightness), three players who have lived up to -- or even outperformed -- expectations this season. That left Elias Díaz and Adam Frazier as the most experienced hitters in a lineup that managed only one run on eight hits.
“He commanded well. He located well,” Hurdle said of Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. “You’re missing your three and four hitters (Marte and Bell) in your lineup, let’s not punt on that. It makes a difference as well.”
The Pirates have been saddled with injuries since the beginning of the season, and they have felt the impact of that. Opening Day starter Jameson Taillon made only seven starts before undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. Starters Trevor Williams and Chris Archer have missed time. Due to an injury and suspensions, setup man Keone Kela has made only 28 appearances.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli, their highest-paid player, played in 34 games before he was sidelined by concussion symptoms and eventually traded to the contending Braves. Left fielder Corey Dickerson missed two months with a shoulder injury, then was shipped out at the Trade Deadline. Right fielder Gregory Polanco rushed back from shoulder surgery but never fully recovered, and he’ll end the year with only 167 plate appearances.
But their biggest problem has been their pitching, particularly from a rotation that was supposed to be the team’s strength and appeared to be exactly that a month into the season.
Their 5.16 team ERA ranks 26th in the Majors, and their starters’ 5.33 ERA ranks 25th. While the Pirates have limped to a 21-39 record in the second half, including a 6-28 mark against teams with winning records like the Cubs, their starters have put together a 6.13 ERA.
Rookie right-hander James Marvel, who spent most of the season in Double-A, fell victim to the Cubs’ homer-happy lineup on Saturday afternoon. Making his second big league start, Marvel allowed seven runs on nine hits, including two home runs, in four innings. Wei-Chung Wang, Clay Holmes and Parker Markel combined to give up seven runs in relief.
“When our starter gets behind early and gets taken out, our second line hasn’t been very good,” Hurdle said. “It’s been an area of, basically, non-support for us at times. We haven’t been able to stay in games. These guys are trying.”
With two weeks remaining before a pivotal offseason begins, the Pirates must try to get things right. Huntington said last month that they “recognized changes are needed.” But they have many more specific questions to answer before next season.
What will change? Will they reload or rebuild? Who will stay and who will go? And how much longer will it be until they finally accomplish the goal of bringing championship baseball back to Pittsburgh?