Controversial finish begins Bucs' slide in '11

Controversial finish begins Bucs' slide in '11

Controversial finish begins Bucs' slide in '11
PITTSBURGH -- The debate about whether it was correlation or coincidence continues even now, five months after umpire Jerry Meals ensured that the game would stand as one of the most memorable of the 2011 season.

A night that began with the Pirates locked in a tie for the division lead gave way to a morning in which the Pirates not only dropped from that top spot, but did so in the most dramatic of ways. Meals' erroneous call at home plate that morning sealed Pittsburgh's 4-3, 19-inning loss to the Braves.

Some would argue that the July 26 contest cost the Pirates the season. You just won't find the organization saying the same.

The actual impact of that night likely falls somewhere between the mutually exclusive extremes of correlation and coincidence. There is certainly no sugarcoating what followed -- the team dropped 10 of its next 11 games, lost its grip on the potential for a winning season and won only 18 of the season's final 59 games.

But there was also much to suggest that a downturn was on the horizon and inevitable. The starting pitching was already beginning to falter and injuries were piling up quicker than players were coming off the disabled list. Meanwhile, the offense wasn't picking up and the schedule was only getting tougher.

In retrospect, a perfect storm was brewing. It just so happened that the most memorable flash of lightning came that night in Atlanta.

"Yeah, it was a devastating, grueling game," said catcher Michael McKenry, whose swipe tag on Julio Lugo remains the lasting image of that game. "But I always say that in 162 games, it's hard to look back at one. I can't say how many games we lost by one run. If you take those one-run games back instead of thinking about just that one, then it makes a big difference."

To answer McKenry's question, the Pirates went 21-22 in one-run games in 2011, with 11 of those losses coming after the 19-inning one. There were also plenty of lopsided defeats near the end, too, as the club was outscored by 99 runs in August and September.

It was during those two months that the cracks all started to show.

"Our expectation is to play better baseball for six months next year," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We talk continually about the process. We showed ourselves that we can do some very good things for about four months. Now we have to do it for six."

However, the Pirates did make headlines in 2011 for more than just a six-hour, 39-minute loss and subsequent collapse. In fact, the team enjoyed a bright summer spotlight.

While most expected the Pirates to improve upon their 105-loss season in 2010, few envisioned the club sitting in first place 100 games into the season. And yet, that's exactly where it was.

There was an evident reconnection with a city that had not enjoyed a winning baseball season since 1992, as well as an increased media presence (both locally and nationally) to document the drama. Series wins over the Phillies and Red Sox in June were benchmarks for a young organization looking for tangible proof of progress.

The club sat as many as seven games above .500 at one point and held sole possession of first place in the National League Central as late as July 19. One week later, Meals assisted in stealing away that momentum.

"We talked about that game for the rest of the year," said Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth, who has the unique perspective of having been in the Braves clubhouse that night. "None of us had ever seen anything like that. It was crazy. I can't imagine being on the losing end of that game. Those are tough. You can say, 'We'll put this one behind us,' but it's tough to do."

As for McKenry, he smiles about that game now, noting that, for him, it wasn't even his most memorable game of the year. (That distinction went to the July 8 contest in which he hit an eighth-inning, go-ahead homer against Chicago.)

In fact, McKenry prefers to remember that 19-inning game for reasons besides the outcome. That night, he said, was defined by watching reliever Daniel McCutchen -- who was scheduled to have the night off -- come in and throw 92 pitches. And it was capped by the message that manager Clint Hurdle delivered to a disheartened group of players afterward.

"He came in," McKenry said, "and just said, 'Boys, we'll get them tomorrow. Nothing we can do about that now. Move on. Way to fight. I'm proud of you.'"

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.