CINCINNATI -- Before the Pirates' 6-5 win over the Reds on Sunday afternoon, manager Clint Hurdle spoke highly of his team's performance and personality. They were a young group that started off hot, struggled, surged back into the postseason race only to fall out of it and showed some promise
CINCINNATI -- Before the Pirates' 6-5 win over the Reds on Sunday afternoon, manager Clint Hurdle spoke highly of his team's performance and personality. They were a young group that started off hot, struggled, surged back into the postseason race only to fall out of it and showed some promise for next year by finishing strong.
But while their National League Central competitors battled for postseason positioning, the Pirates ended their season on Sunday and went their separate ways for the offseason. They finished fourth in the division, well short of their ultimate goal. But they were able to celebrate to "El Mechon" one more time and leave Great American Ball Park with more hope and certainty than a year ago after outperforming most preseason projections.
"I'm pleased, not satisfied," Hurdle said. "At the end, it's that cohesive element that I feel very, very encouraged by. These men together will be able to look each other in the eyes when they walk out, shake each other's hand and say, 'Well done. Work to do next year, but well done. The season did not get away from us.'
"We stayed in the hunt. We kept fighting. We didn't get to where we needed to go or where we wanted to go, but we stayed focused on getting better every day."
The Pirates played their season finale without most of their regular starters. Clay Holmes pitched instead of Chris Archer, and he was followed by a handful of relievers who spent most of the season with Triple-A Indianapolis before All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez punctuated the season. There were only three Opening Day starters in the lineup: center fielder Starling Marte, first baseman Josh Bell and third baseman Colin Moran.
"I'm proud about this team, the way we battled. We finished short of our goal, but it was a fun year," said left fielder Corey Dickerson, who batted .300 and may win a Gold Glove Award after joining the team in February. "It was really fun for me to come over here, be accepted, play like we did. It really makes it exciting for next year. We had a good year, but not good enough."
Shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Josh Harrison, former Minor League roommates and longtime teammates who put on a Pittsburgh uniform for possibly the last time on Sunday, did not appear in the game after playing on Saturday. Hurdle played the two once per series down the stretch, always pairing them together to set an example for the Pirates' younger players.
"It's crazy how he ended up on my couch, yet we've stuck this long together," Mercer said. "We've ridden the wave. We've seen guys come and go. It's been me and him this whole time. It's been really awesome to have somebody like him enjoy the ride with you as well."
Although the Pirates' August slump knocked them out of contention and forced them to shift their focus toward 2019, they did not roll over. They went 16-10 in September to clinch a winning record for the first time since their 98-win, NL Wild Card season in 2015.
"We wanted to finish strong. We wanted to build some momentum going into the offseason," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We wanted to build some belief going into next year, and we've been able to do that despite losing a handful of pretty significant players here down the stretch."
But younger players stepped up along the way, as one of their more pleasantly surprising rookies did in the 10th inning of the season finale. Pablo Reyes, an unheralded prospect who may find his way onto the Opening Day roster next season, hit a flare to right field, hustled to third when the Reds booted the ball around and scored on a wild pitch by reliever Jackson Stephens.
"How much fun did he have?" Hurdle said. "What a fun time."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Exclusive company: Marte joined an elite group of Pirates hitters in the sixth inning. Marte's solo shot off Matt Wisler was his 20th home run of the season, a career high. Marte is only the third player in franchise history to hit at least 20 homers and steal at least 30 bases in a season. Andy Van Slyke did it twice, and Barry Bonds joined the 20-homer/30-steal club four times for Pittsburgh.
"There's an appreciation for Starling that's real. It's been a while since his last homer, and it was an elephant in the room," Hurdle said. "I think he went through a stretch where he was trying to hit a homer, then I think he got to a point where he just decided he was going to play ball."
Bell followed up Marte's solo blast with a shot to center, his 12th home run of the year. It was the seventh time the Pirates hit back-to-back homers this season -- but obviously the only one after the first player hit a homer the entire team had been awaiting.
"The fun part of it is Marte hit his, so there's nobody watching Bell's at-bat," Hurdle said. "I have a tendency to scream one thing after a home run: 'Don't miss this one!' Even though I yell it, every once in a while, I'll get a few heads to turn around. Nobody turned around. It was the 'Marte Partay' in the dugout, so maybe Bell and I were the only ones that saw the homer. Good swing."
This was Hurdle's 1,200th win as a Major League manager. He joined Bruce Bochy, Buck Showalter, Terry Francona and Mike Scioscia, who stepped down as Angels manager on Sunday, as the only active managers to reach that total.
The last time the Pirates posted a winning record but didn't reach the postseason was 1988. Their previous six winning seasons all ended in the playoffs.
HE SAID IT
"Before the game, we were talking about how you can't draw up storylines in the game of baseball. This game is just another microcosm of that. No better fit, in my particular case, for this kind of game to play out and be No. 1,200. I've got more guys that aren't going to play than are going to play. The available pitching was close to being out. And just to be down early and fight back? Yeah, fun." -- Hurdle, on winning his 1,200th game
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.