For two-thirds of the 2012 season, the Pirates were the National League's top story, and their center fielder, Andrew McCutchen, was judged by the consensus to be the league's most valuable player.
All things considered, McCutchen closed better than his team, a fact reflected by Thursday's announcement of the NL Most Valuable Player Award, as voted by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
McCutchen finished third, behind MVP Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and runner-up Ryan Braun -- the 2011 winner -- of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Six second-place votes out of 32 overall helped boost McCutchen's total points to 245 -- two-and-a-half times the total for all Pittsburgh players from 1993 to 2011.
"It was an honor just to be nominated for National League MVP this season along with some of MLB's best players," said McCutchen. "I want to congratulate Buster Posey on an amazing season.
"I believe that being an MVP finalist shows true improvement both from myself and the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and that we are moving in the right direction.
"Media members, players and fans alike are beginning to notice this progress as well. I am motivated to continue to work hard, and I'm already looking forward to the 2013 season."
McCutchen's distinction as the most prominent Pirates player in MVP voting in 20 years was already known, by virtue of the earlier disclosure that he was one of the finalists for the award. Since 1992, when Barry Bonds won his second MVP Award in three years, the previous highest finish by a Pittsburgh player in voting for the honor was Jason Bay's 12th place in 2005. Bay's 41-point total had also been the two-decade high; in fact, the 10 other Pirates receiving MVP votes since 1992 had an aggregate of only 60 points.
The season's final two months clearly influenced this campaign. While Posey hit .367 in August and September on the way to a pair of titles -- his batting crown and the Giants' pennant -- McCutchen slowed to .253 across the same stretch as the Bucs limped to a 79-83 final record.
McCutchen's prominent finish in the MVP race is the final confirmation of his breakthrough season and its impact on the Pirates' hopes of ending two decades of losing seasons.
McCutchen was such a force on a team that contended for a postseason berth into September, he was generally viewed as a frontrunner for the award had the Bucs not faded out of the playoff picture.
The esteem was understandable. The 26-year-old Floridian towered over Pittsburgh's offense in a way seldom seen in the Major Leagues. Teammates Pedro Alvarez (30) and Garrett Jones (27) gave McCutchen's 31 homers a run. But McCutchen had 62 more hits (194), scored 39 more runs (107) and batted 47 points higher (.327) than any teammate.
Adding his Gold Glove defense in center field and the fact he did it all daily -- he also led the Bucs with 157 games played -- leaves no room for arguing against his importance to a franchise regrouping for another surge back into prominence.
Manager Clint Hurdle watched Kansas City teammate George Brett bat .390 for an entire season in 1980, and was Texas' batting coach during Josh Hamilton's 2010 AL MVP season. Hurdle said the 2012 McCutchen "very well could be the best I've ever seen."
"Watching this young man perform and taking into consideration his cast of characters, I often caught myself thinking, 'Wow, this is special.' It was a very special time and place for him in the game," Hurdle said. "And he had fun with it, didn't put any extra pressure on himself."
Along the way, McCutchen also was part of the NL quartet for the Home Run Derby at All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City, which might have been a first for a player who had no homers until May 8, the season's 29th game.
Then McCutchen got hot. Real hot. Scalding hot. He was the NL's Player of the Month in June by hitting .370, then in July hit 76 points higher, repeating Player of the Month honors. After his 100th game of the season, he was hitting .373, the highest by a Pirates player at that point of a season since 1937, when Hall of Famer Paul Waner was at .375.
When you start reaching such benchmarks as that for a franchise that has had more batting champions than any other, it makes McCutchen -- well, as Hurdle put it, "very special."