Pirates still can have landmark season

It was only 16 days ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates awoke with the National League Central lead. They are 3-13 since. Cinderella tripped on her gown, tore an ACL, and will undergo season-ending microfracture surgery.

The Pirates aren’t going to make the playoffs, according to the Baseball Prospectus odds calculation (0.0 percent chance entering Tuesday) and a modicum of common sense. Really, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Even the most strident optimists in Western Pennsylvania must concede that this team never was going to outpitch Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo — or outslug Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman — over six months.

But let’s put this season, and this franchise, into perspective. Last year was the Pirates’ worst since the 1950s, which, considering their recent litany of woes, is saying something indeed. They finished last in the division for a fourth straight year. They have suffered through 18 consecutive losing seasons, the all-time record for major professional sports in the US.

In that context, their 56-60 record doesn’t sound so bad. And with the Pirates playing the defending champion Giants this week, perhaps they should look across the Bay for inspiration in crafting a new motto for the season.

Just win 82, baby.

No other fan base in baseball is more fixated on the concept of a winning season, the sort of thing that’s a layup for the Red Sox and Yankees and so many others.

"It would be wonderful," affirmed Mike Emrick, the Hall of Fame hockey broadcaster who attended his first Pirates game 52 years ago Tuesday. "When it comes to the Pirates, the journalism gets thrown away and they’re the one team in sports that I can call ‘we.’

"In hockey, we would say there are no moral victories. But for a Pirate fan, an 82-80 season — or 81-80 with a rainout — would be terrific. Now, would I be doing handstands? No. But would I be quietly satisfied, knowing that, by George, there’s been a difference made? I absolutely would."

The Big 8-2 is more important outside the Pirates’ clubhouse than within. That is understandable. Team officials talk about building a championship organization, not finishing a tick above .500, as the ultimate goal. Many players on the team are young enough that their primary concern is simply establishing themselves in the major leagues. Meanwhile, children born at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 1993 are getting ready for their freshmen years of college without the Pirates completing a winning season in their lifetimes.

We can only wonder what the locals will do if/when they see their Pirates clinch a winning season at home.

"They might riot like it’s a soccer game," closer Joel Hanrahan said.

For now, though, the happy mob is on hold. The Pirates set a major-league record for the fastest tumble to a 10-game deficit after being in first place, according to STATS LLC. It took them all of 13 days.

"We’ve taken a lot of hits across the board," manager Clint Hurdle said this week. "We’ve slipped in all three facets of the game: offense, defense, and pitching."

Now they must make up the lost ground against a treacherous closing schedule, with six series left against the Brewers and Cardinals. But the simplicity of the desired outcome — from the fans’ standpoint, anyway — should offer some solace: Just play well enough that the final winning percentage starts with a 5.

Yes, I understand that this is Major League Baseball, not a rec league where every 8-year-old walks away with a trophy for trying their best. But if we’re measuring performance against expectations, a winning record for this group would be more noteworthy than the Phillies’ runaway division title. The Phillies are supposed to win. The Pirates aren’t.

On some level, the Pirates’ most recent miseries can be traced to the night of July 26 (and early morning hours of July 27), when they suffered a crushing, 19-inning loss to the Braves on a blown call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals.

That’s the defeat that began the aforementioned 3-13 stretch, flipping the narrative from captivating to catastrophic more quickly than Brett Favre throwing late and over the middle against the Saints.

Was there a turning point after those 19 innings?

"It looks like it," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "But at some point, we’ve got to move beyond that."

Hope will persist as long as the starting rotation sustains what has been a credible body of work in 2011. That’s hardly a novel concept, but the need for stability is particularly acute with the Pirates because of their starters’ relative youth and inexperience.

Three pitchers — Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald —  already have surpassed their career highs for major-league innings in a season. How much they have left could be the biggest factor in determining whether Pittsburgh can gather the necessary victories to guarantee a winning season.

A core of position players has taken shape, including center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker. But at some point the Pirates must see more from Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Sure, Alvarez is 24 years old, but so is McCutchen, and he’s already one of the most exciting players in baseball.

Evan Longoria, a fellow college third baseman, had won a Rookie of the Year award and made two All-Star teams at a comparable point in his career. Ryan Zimmerman was in his third season as the Nationals’ third baseman, with a pair of 20-homer seasons in the big leagues.

Alvarez, though, has been injured and sent to the minors this year. He’s back now but struggling to a .576 OPS in 52 games, and Pirates fans will try not to remind themselves that Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey were selected after Alvarez that year.

"I’ve been feeling good. I know the results haven’t been indicative of that," Alvarez said. "I’m staying positive, sticking with the routine and work. I know things are going to turn around. It’s just a matter of time."

Pirates fans have been saying the same thing since Sid Bream slid home safely in 1992, and maybe now the day is near when they won’t have to worry about being a punch line anymore. Perhaps the clever shirt — PITTSBURGH: THE CITY OF CHAMPIONS … AND THE PIRATES — soon will be retired for good.

The ’11 Pirates will fall short of induction to the Hall of Most Beloved Underdogs, and that is not the fault of Jerry Meals. They simply aren’t as good as the Brewers or the Cardinals. However, they are much better than they used to be. And that’s a start.