PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates began this season feeling more optimistic than most outside the organization about their chances of reaching the postseason. After a hot start, and again after their 11-game winning streak in July, they had reason to believe in this year's team.But a rough August prompted the Pirates
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates began this season feeling more optimistic than most outside the organization about their chances of reaching the postseason. After a hot start, and again after their 11-game winning streak in July, they had reason to believe in this year's team.
But a rough August prompted the Pirates to shift their focus toward next year, and whatever hopes they had for this season were officially dashed after a mistake-filled, 13-6 loss to the Brewers on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. The defeat dropped the Bucs' National League Wild Card elimination number to one, and the Cardinals' 9-2 win over the Giants mathematically eliminated the Pirates from playoff contention.
The Pirates head out on their final road trip of the year -- a seven-game swing through Chicago and Cincinnati -- sitting two games above .500. They still have a shot to put together a winning season, their first since 2015, but this will be their third straight October spent watching the postseason from home.
"If we figure out how to win one game a month more, we're in a very different spot as we finish this season," general manager Neal Huntington said before Sunday's game. "If we win two games a month more, we're fighting for a division, which is ultimately where we want to be, because it best positions you to win a World Series."
They will head into the offseason feeling good about their rotation, a group fronted by Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chris Archer. They have five reliable arms at the back end of their bullpen: Felipe Vazquez, Kyle Crick, Keone Kela, Richard Rodriguez and Edgar Santana. But they will seek more power for their lineup, which has been the cause of their hot stretches and the culprit behind most of their extended slumps.
"There are some things we feel really good about. Now the challenge is, how do we push forward? How do we get better?" Huntington said. "How do we improve the starting [rotation] and the bullpen? How do we become more consistent offensively and defensively?"
They won't find many answers looking back on Sunday's performance. Right-hander Nick Kingham, pitching in place of the injured Joe Musgrove, struggled from the start. He gave up one run in the first and five more in the second, when Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw bashed a pair of homers. Pitching as late into the season as he ever has, the rookie allowed seven hits and two walks while recording only four outs in his first appearance since Sept. 8.
"It has been a while since I got off the mound, but I'm supposed to go deep into the game," Kingham said. "They picked me to start the game, and I didn't do that."
The Pirates pulled within three as Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer each ripped a two-run double in the fifth. But the game got out of hand in the sixth after right-hander Michael Feliz replaced lefty Steven Brault with the bases loaded and two outs.
Feliz promptly walked in two runs and then, with Eric Thames batting, uncorked a wild pitch that wound up clearing the bases. The pitch bounced away from catcher Elias Diaz, making his first start since Aug. 31, and toward the Brewers' dugout. Jesus Aguilar scored easily, and Ryan Braun hustled home. Feliz couldn't grab Josh Bell's throw home, allowing Orlando Arcia to score from first.
"That's a bad baseball play," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Whether there's confusion or lack of effort or a combination of it going on there, I'm not sure. ... I think the speed of the game challenged [Diaz] a couple different ways. And Feliz, sometimes guys get trying too hard, they lose responsibilities -- and that's not acceptable either."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
A fond farewell? Likely playing their final home games as Pirates, Harrison and Mercer each received a standing ovation and pointed toward the crowd in thanks as they left the field in the eighth inning. Out of respect for the two veterans, Hurdle replaced Harrison with Adam Frazier with one out in the eighth and pulled Mercer for Kevin Newman with two outs.
"It was a cool moment. Surreal moment. Something you don't try to think about until it actually hits you," Mercer said. "I got emotional. It's hard not to. It's hard not to feel it deep down inside. You've been in a place for so long that you don't know any better. It's a blessing."
Harrison has a $10.5 million club option for next season that the Pirates aren't likely to exercise, as Huntington has said Frazier is ready for an everyday role. Mercer will be a free agent at the end of the season, although he could return to mentor Newman. Both veterans played prominent roles for Pittsburgh as the Bucs returned to the postseason in 2013, '14 and '15.
"They made the place better," Hurdle said. "One of the things I share with the team all the time: There will be a day that you'll walk out for every one of us. One of the things you're holding on to, you want to strive for while you're here, is making it better than when you came in. They both made it better than it was when they came in."
Assuming they do not play their rescheduled game against the Marlins on Oct. 1 since both teams are out of the postseason race, the Pirates will finish the season 44-36 at home. They went 44-37 at PNC Park last year.
The Bucs drew 1,465,316 fans to PNC Park over 78 home dates, including a pair of doubleheaders, for an average attendance of 18,786.
Center fielder Starling Marte exited in the fifth inning due to left calf tightness. Marte sustained the injury while running down the first-base line on a groundout in the fourth inning, the Pirates announced. Kevin Kramer replaced him as a pinch-hitter and remained in the game playing third base. That set off a chain reaction that sent Jose Osuna to right field, Pablo Reyes to left and Jordan Luplow to center.
Santana remained sidelined due to right forearm/elbow discomfort. The right-hander, who left Friday's game, is scheduled to be examined and tested on Monday.
The Pirates will begin their final road trip of the season on Monday night, when right-hander Taillon will face lefty Cole Hamels and the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Taillon enters his penultimate start having allowed three earned runs or fewer in his last 20 outings. First pitch is scheduled for 8:05 p.m. ET.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.