Bucs' great '15 came to unsatisfying early end

Despite winning 98 games, Pirates' postseason again lasted just one game

Bucs' great '15 came to unsatisfying early end

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates had the right team -- their most successful club since Barry Bonds roamed left field at Three Rivers Stadium -- but they twice found themselves in the wrong place in 2015.

The Bucs stormed through the regular season by winning 98 games -- the Majors' second-highest total. Unfortunately, they happened to share a division with the league's best team, the 100-win Cardinals. Right team, wrong division.

Their reward for being the runner-up in the National League Central? Another appearance in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, this time against Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. Right team, wrong matchup.

The 2015 Pirates were two games away from a division title. They were one game away from a full postseason series and a better shot at diving deeper into October. They aimed high and fell short, but the ending doesn't discount all they accomplished along the way.

Here are the top five storylines from the Pirates' third straight run to the postseason.

1. Black and gold touch
Nearly every move general manager Neal Huntington made -- from the start of free agency in late 2014 until the July 31 Trade Deadline -- worked out. Just run through the list of players he added last offseason: Francisco Liriano, Francisco Cervelli, A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo, Jung Ho Kang and Sean Rodriguez. They all played a role in the Pirates' success.

Criticized in some corners for not doing more, Huntington turned in a virtually flawless Trade Deadline, as well. The Pirates picked up first baseman Michael Morse, relievers Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and left-hander J.A. Happ, who earned a three-year, $36 million contract with Toronto this offseason based on his stretch run with the Bucs.

The Pirates had holes to fill, and they had to be creative in doing so. By finding value in unexpected places -- particularly with Kang and Cervelli -- Huntington shrewdly built a contender.

2. The challengers
The words "playoff atmosphere" are often bandied about during the regular season, but rarely does the atmosphere and drama in July actually match that of October. But when the Cardinals and Pirates met at PNC Park just before the All-Star break, the phrase rang true.

The Pirates pulled off back-to-back extra-inning walk-off victories over the Cardinals, both in nationally televised games, proving that -- even after a slow start -- they would not be so calmly swept away. The back-and-forth affairs also represented the incredible competition within the NL Central, which sent three teams to the playoffs.

Andrew McCutchen sealed the first win on July 11, launching a game-winning homer in the bottom of the 14th inning. Gregory Polanco did the honors the following night, capping a three-run comeback in the 10th with an RBI single to right field.

Bucs get back-to-back walk-offs

3. All kinds of All-Stars
The Pirates were well-represented in Cincinnati this year, sending four players at different points in their respective careers. But there was one shared bond among the quartet: They were vital to the Pirates.

McCutchen made his fifth straight trip to the Midsummer Classic and started the game for the second year in a row. Mark Melancon was selected to his first All-Star team in 2013 as a dynamic setup man, but he returned this year as one of the game's best closers and the leader of the Majors' most effective bullpen.

They were joined by a pair of first-time All-Stars: Gerrit Cole and Burnett. For Cole, it was likely the first of many appearances on the game's brightest stage, as he emerged in 2015 as one of baseball's best young pitchers. For Burnett, it was his first and last All-Star bid -- one final honor at the end of a 17-year career he wanted to finish with the Pirates.

Cole dominates in 2015

4. Quiet clincher, quick exit
The Pirates clinched a spot in the postseason on Sept. 23 -- the third year in a row they'd done so on that date. But this season's celebration was different. It was a subdued recognition of what they'd accomplished, not a raucous clubhouse party full of beer-soaked players and flying champagne.

The Pirates wanted to act like they had been there before, because they had, and they wanted to send a message that simply making the playoffs would not be enough. They were aiming higher, setting their sights on a division crown instead of a third straight NL Wild Card Game.

But the Bucs couldn't get past the Cardinals, and they were reminded on Oct. 7 why they didn't want to roll the dice in a win-or-go-home duel. The Pirates once again ran into baseball's hottest pitcher (this time Arrieta, not Madison Bumgarner) and lost, heading home for the winter earlier than expected.

5. Moving on
In the months after that game, Huntington began to once again reshape the Pirates' roster. That process involved a few difficult decisions, like cutting ties with three established players: Pedro Alvarez, Charlie Morton and Neil Walker.

Mets, Pirates strike a deal

Alvarez was once a No. 2 overall Draft pick, and he turned into a powerful slugger who captivated Pittsburgh by blasting balls into the Allegheny River. But his defensive flaws were all too evident during the season, so the Pirates parted ways with him on Dec. 2.

Morton was traded to clear up financial room for further acquisitions. And Walker was sent to the Mets in exchange for left-hander Jon Niese, ending the Pittsburgh Kid's 12-year affiliation with his hometown team.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.