Finally. After 20 consecutive losing seasons -- a North American professional sports record -- and back-to-back second-half implosions the last two seasons, the Bucs are headed back to the postseason for the first time since 1992. Only Kansas City (1985 World Series) has been postseason-deprived longer. After going through second-half slides of 25-47 in 2011 and 31-46 in '12, the Pirates met the challenge. They went 38-31 after the break this year and swept Cincinnati in a season-ending series at Great America Ball Park to claim home-field advantage for the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday at 8:07 p.m. ET against Cincinnati (on TBS).
The Bucs' offense actually picked up in the second half -- going from an average of 3.88 runs per game before the All-Star break to 4.01 after -- and the pitching staff remained solid, as Pittsburgh's 3.54 post-All-Star ERA ranked seventh in the NL.
The two previous years, run production dropped in the second half -- 4.05 to 3.97 in 2012, and 3.9 to 3.56 in '11 -- and the ERA soared from first half to second half -- 3.48 to 4.38 in 2012, and 3.46 to 4.78 in '11. The offseason focus on beefing up the pitching staff paid off. The bullpen duo of Jason Grilli (33 saves, 2.70 ERA) and Mark Melancon (16 saves, 1.39 ERA) gave the Pirates a 1-2 punch in the late innings, and the rotation welcomed the dependable efforts of A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA).
For only the second time in 19 years, the Yanks are on the outside looking in on the postseason, which has led to questions about what went wrong. Could it simply be that in 2013, the Yankees paid the price for having been able to sustain such a long run of success? Eventually the constant efforts to remain competitive wear a franchise's structure down. Injuries were a definite factor. The Yanks used a franchise-record 56 players to get through the season.
And now they look at an offseason that will mark major changes. Closer Mariano Rivera and left-handed starter Andy Pettitte have retired. The list of potential free agents includes the likes of Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Hiroki Kuroda. In trying to address their needs, the Yankees also must deal with the plan to trim their payroll to $189 million to reset the luxury tax penalty rate, and they already have a lot of money locked up in a few players.
There doesn't appear to be a lot of help ready to jump from the farm system to the big leagues. That, however, shouldn't be a real surprise. The Yankees have mortgaged the future in the last decade to enjoy the present, and the bill has finally come due. The on-field success combined with the signing of free agents, which led to the loss of Draft choices, resulted in the Yanks having signed only 17 selections among the first 120 players drafted from 2005-11, a Major League low. By comparison, Boston had 35 and Arizona had 36.
Remember, Ian Kennedy, Austin Jackson, Melancon, Phil Coke, Zach McAllister, Tyler Clippard, Mike Dunn, George Kontos and Dane De La Rosa all were originally signed by the Yankees.
Two seasons ago, Cleveland made the July 30 trade for Ubaldo Jimenez from Colorado in the search for a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter to carry the team down the stretch. For two years, the Indians second-guessed themselves. The Tribe was a combined 45-71 in the final two months of the 2011-12 seasons. Jimenez? He was 5-11 with a 5.57 ERA in his 21 starts during the final months of the 2011-12 seasons, and the Indians were 7-14 in those games.
This year, though, was different. In September, which Cleveland finished with a 10-game winning streak to clinch the top American League Wild Card spot, Jimenez was 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA and the Indians won all six of his starts.
In 2012, the Halos handed out a record-setting contract to Albert Pujols and lured the top free-agent pitcher, C.J. Wilson. The next year, they signed Josh Hamilton. Neither time, however, have the Angels made it to the postseason. Pujols, who has eight years remaining on his $240 million deal, played only 99 games this year because of injury problems, and Hamilton, who has four years remaining on his $125 million package, didn't even reach .250 with his batting average for the first time until Game 161.
Meanwhile, they were unable to retain three of their five rotation regulars from 2012, losing Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke to free agency. And it was the rotation, more than anything else, that underscored the Angels' second third-place finish in a row. Wilson and Jered Weaver were the only starters to win in double figures and have an ERA below 4.00. While the Halos had four starters make 30 or more starts in 2012 -- Greinke made 13 after his midseason acquisition from Milwaukee -- Wilson was the only one of the 11 starters the Angels used this year to make more than 25 starts.
UP: Red Sox
There's no question that the three-division alignment has made it easier to go from worst to first. The Red Sox are the 11th team all-time to do it, the eighth since 1997. That, however, doesn't take away from the celebration at Fenway Park, where last year's nightmarish stumble can be pushed into the background. Boston rebounded from its 10th-highest loss total (69-93) and worst record since 1965 to the sixth-best win (97-65) total in franchise history.
David Ortiz led the way hitting .309 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs, but he didn't have to carry an excessive load. The Sox had five players hit .294 or better, eight hit 12 home runs or more and seven players drive in 60 runs or more.
The Nats are the latest team to suffer a second-year letdown. A team that became a fan favorite a year ago when it advanced to the postseason, Washington was the trendy pick last winter to win the World Series this year. So much for that idea. The Nationals aren't invited to the dance this time around. They took a general step back in most areas.
A rotation that was 72-45 with a 3.40 ERA last year, both tops in the NL, was 56-54 with a 3.60 ERA this year, both sixth. The bullpen went from converting 75 percent of its saves (51 of 68 in 2012), to converting 69.1 percent (47 of 68). After having five pitchers win in double figures last year, including Gio Gonzalez (21-8), the Nats had only three this year, and Gonzalez was one of them at 11-8. The offense slipped from a .261 average to .251, 731 runs to 656, and a .322 on-base percentage to .313.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.