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Pirates take step closer to ending drought

The Pirates' takeaway from the 2012 season is easily summarized, and has often been noted since the curtain dropped:

Fans, along with team personnel, got into it just hoping for the end of 19 straight losing seasons. Everyone came out of it upset that the Bucs did not make the playoffs.

Progress, because people were put off by the Bucs' inability to clear a higher bar?

Manager Clint Hurdle, who in 2011 took over a club that had lost more games (105) than any other in baseball, believed so.

"Our street cred is picking up. But we're not looking for outside acceptance," Hurdle said. "You can't just ignore what we were able to accomplish, but you can't be happy with the finish at all. We were better than 79 wins."

Thirty-four of those total wins came in June and July, when the Pirates were better than just about any team in the Majors. You can correctly conclude from that, however, that the Bucs lagged before and after.

That midseason ride was intoxicating, with Pirates players giving the "Zoltan" sign and others' hands simply giving them the thumbs-up. Fans flocked to PNC Park -- 2,091,918 strong by season's end -- in their black-and-gold wardrobe, either newly purchased or taken out of mothballs.

When Steelers camp opened, Ben Roethlisberger talked Andrew McCutchen and James Harrison wanted to know about Josh Harrison.

Then things came undone, but even in the rubble of another disappointing conclusion, numerous developments shone through to light the way to 2013.

McCutchen bloomed into bona fide superstardom, with both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award as confirmation. A.J. Burnett aced his arrival from The Bronx, and his influence rubbed off on James McDonald. Pedro Alvarez recaptured much of the promise of his 2010 debut. Jason Grilli joined Joel Hanrahan in steeling the back of the bullpen. Starling Marte arrived, and Neil Walker thrived, until a late-season injury.

Here is a final look back at the top storylines of the Bucs' Jekyll-and-Hyde year.

5. Bucs and Burnett: Born Again

It wasn't the first time the Pirates took a chance on someone else's problem, but the risk seldom paid off bigger. The Yankees were anxious enough to shed Burnett that they paid his late-February way to Pittsburgh -- literally, agreeing to cover more than 50 percent of his salary.

Delayed by an incident that seemed to perpetuate both his and his new team's misfortunes -- a fouled bunt resulting in an eye-orbital fracture early in Spring Training -- Burnett blanked St. Louis in his April 21 debut, and was off on a run that legitimized the Pirates. Through mid-August, his record was 15-4 and the Bucs' record in his starts was 18-4.

And Burnett took McDonald along for the ride, mentoring the younger right-hander. Their combined record at that mid-August benchmark was 26-9. While the rotation was adjusted so they followed each other from June 3-July 8, the Pirates went 13-1 in their starts.

4. McCutchen: The Constant Gardener

The Bucs' April showers brought May flowers, as they took off on May 25 and went 38-18 through July 28. Tending to that garden was their center fielder. McCutchen personally hit .392 with 15 homers and 42 RBIs in those 56 games, paving his way to back-to-back National League Player of the Month honors for June and July.

McCutchen was the constant, but not the only one irrigating that garden with showers -- of power. On May 5, he, Alvarez and Garrett Jones had a total of 10 homers. By season's end, the trio had clocked 88 -- fifth best in club history, and No. 2 in the NL (Brewers, 98).

Alvarez in particular demonstrated his value to the club on June 17 in Cleveland by producing six runs on consecutive swings (with a pair of three-run homers) -- or more than the total the Pirates had scored in 55 of the preceding 64 games.

3. That rundown feeling

By design, the Pirates wanted to be a running club. They knew aggressive baserunning, helping manufacture runs, would have to compensate for the lack of lineup depth.

"A number of guys will have the green light," Hurdle had said. "They need to know they won't be hit with 30 questions if they get thrown out. We have to press it; we can't be afraid of making an out."

The Pirates inadvertently showed their bravery by making lots of outs on the bases. They were caught stealing (52) more than any other NL team while having the fewest steals (73), a bad combination. It simply became something to which they did not pay enough attention: McCutchen, who certainly has the speed and savvy for the task (78 steals in his first three seasons), ran 1-for-8 in one two-month stretch.

The score was even poorer on the other side of the ball: Even including the occasional pitcher's pickoff, the Pirates nabbed only 19 of 173 runners attempting to steal.

2. Fandemonium

The Pirates reconnected with the city, Western Pennsylvania and their tri-state area in a big, exciting way. Repeatedly, when the going was good, tenured players derived the greatest pleasure from being able to reward long-suffering fans.

The improvement in which Hurdle took so much pride certainly extended to the gate: In his two years, attendance has improved 30 percent over the 1,613,399 in 2010.

The Bucs' 17 sellouts told only part of the story. The total of 30 crowds of 30,000-plus were the second most in the club's 127-year history.

1. Deadline, going on flatline

The Pirates were sitting pretty at the annual end-of-July non-waiver Trade Deadline -- at 59-44, three games out of the NL Central lead but tied for the No. 1 seed in the Wild Card -- and general manager Neal Huntington got busy to reinforce their contention, shrugging off dreads that he could disrupt a winning combination and/or the healthy clubhouse atmosphere.

Huntington's lead move was all upside: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, acquired from Houston for a trio of prospects, would win as many games in September (four) as the rest of the starters combined. Other moves didn't work as well.

The Pirates dealt away three players in whose appearances they'd had an aggregate record of 92-54: Casey McGehee (56-36), Brad Lincoln (17-12) and Gorkys Hernandez (19-6). Other factors were certainly involved, but in their return they got a trio in whose appearances they would go 38-68: Travis Snider (15-24), Gaby Sanchez (19-31) and Chad Qualls (4-13).

Huntington's Trade Deadline machinations, thus, clicked as well as they had in 2011, when he made moves for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. One big difference: Lee and Ludwick quickly moved on, but Sanchez and Snider are expected to be cornerstones of the '13 Bucs.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen