"Third time's the charm" has never been truer.
The Pittsburgh Pirates gave it a midseason shot in 2011, then faded. In 2012, they gave it a longer shot, and faded later. This year, they changed Cs, from "collapse" to "closing the deal."
Charmed seasons proverbially happen when everything goes right, so in that regard, the Pirates broke all the rules. The breaks didn't all bend their way, the questions didn't all get answered with exclamation points. With a few notable exceptions, the preseason drawing board resembled an Etch A Sketch tablet at times. Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington had to improvise every step of the way.
In case you interpret that as an exaggeration, be reminded that the only thing the starting rotation that began the season has in common with the one that is finishing it -- and now sets sights on the Pirates' first postseason voyage in 21 years -- is A.J. Burnett.
How did they get here? There are at least 10 reasons:
The GM's obsession
The Pirates originally struck a two-year, $15 million agreement with free-agent left-hander Francisco Liriano in mid-December. However, the Dominican pitcher could not make the trip to Pittsburgh for the requisite physical to make the deal official because he couldn't travel with the broken right arm he suffered in a household accident. Huntington looked for a creative way to still bring Liriano aboard, and 50 days and $14 million later, the club signed him to a new deal. The Bucs had an ace for a $1 million guarantee.
Jose Tabata -- and Marlon Byrd -- with the lifelines
When Starling Marte tried to steal third base on Aug. 18 and Arizona third baseman Martin Prado inadvertently stepped on him, the Pirates thought their invaluable leadoff man -- considered by many of National League MVP Award stock -- might be out with a bruised hand for a few days. Days became weeks, then almost a month. Panic never set in, however, because Jose Tabata dialed up his A-game as a replacement, batting .308 as the Bucs went 17-11 with him in left and leading off. And Tabata was freed for those roles when Huntington made a late deal for Marlon Byrd, who moved into right field.
For starters, Starling Marte
Lacking a credible leadoff batter all last season and still only hopeful when this season began that Marte could grow into the role, the Pirates were absolutely blown away by his tone-setting behavior in April. Marte carried a first-inning on-base percentage of nearly .700 into May, putting to rest one of the Bucs' biggest concerns.
Jeff Locke, half good
The reasons and extent of his second-half regression have yet to be defined, but there is no question the young lefty carried the Pirates in the first half, convincingly -- and remarkably, considering his 1-7 career record before he morphed into an All-Star pitcher. Locke's excellence spanned Liriano's delayed season and the early-June loss of Wandy Rodriguez, as he became Pittsburgh's left-hander of record.
A curse without a home
In their cursed years, the Pirates would have stuck with Joel Hanrahan as their closer, made him their highest-paid player -- then watched him land on the operating table in need of Tommy John surgery nine appearances into the season. The karma has changed: Huntington was able to deal Hanrahan to Boston for four players -- including valuable reliever Mark Melancon. It's a short story without a victim -- the Red Sox still wound up winning the American League East, and Hanrahan is making a full and quick recovery.
Andrew McCutchen re-set his clock
McCutchen, now a perennial NL MVP Award candidate, remained the Pirates' leader, and the team's graph still mirrored his. The big difference: Fulfilling one of his offseason goals, he shifted his sizzle from the summer to the stretch. Amid the 2011-12 skids, McCutchen hit .242 in August-September; up to the Bucs' postseason clincher, he was pounding .363 in those months this year.
Jason Grilli: Old dog learns a new trick
Extended success, into baseball old age, is not unusual for closers, given their specialized low-workload role. We give you Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan and others. But being a freshman closer at 36 is something else. Hurdle was confident Grilli could do it, the righty wanted to do it, and he did it splendidly, leading the NL with 30 saves when a forearm strain forced him to take a two-month timeout.
Hurdle's check list
Have a winning record on the road: check. Have a winning record, for the first time, within the NL Central: check. Cure a problem with coming out of off-days: check. Take the "free 90s" -- extra bases on base hits, with steals, on errant pitches -- but cut down giving them: double check. Make fun, if you wish, of Hurdle's to-do list, which may be only in principle and not on paper, but the Bucs have been crossing off the entries.
The Bucs 'Russell' up a catcher
The inability to curb opponents' running game was the 2012 Pirates' most obvious Achilles "steal," and addressing it was Huntington's prime offseason mission. So he acted quick -- far quicker than expected by the New York Yankees, who were quite upset when Huntington signed veteran catcher Russell Martin from under their noses. It was a culture-changer, as the competitive Martin altered the Bucs' on-field personality. The arm (29 caught stealing) and bat (15 homers) were both strong.
The Shark Tank goes deep six
A run-down bullpen contributed to dragging down the Pirates in 2012. To prevent a repeat, everyone on the staff and in the front office spent the winter and spring preaching the need for more innings out of starting pitchers. How did that go? With four games remaining, starters this year had 33 fewer innings than they did last year. It hasn't been a drain, however, because the arms in a deep bullpen are strong, interchangeable and occasionally tireless.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.