Resilient Pirates dug deep to make it back to playoffs

Behind Harrison, Volquez and Co., Bucs overcame slow start for Wild Card berth

Resilient Pirates dug deep to make it back to playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' 2014 season ended in the type of disappointment a generation of Buccos faithful could have only fantasized about: A loss in a postseason game.

But a year after ending one trend, these Pirates have begun a new tradition -- not only of winning, but of making playoffs. Their calendar now includes Buctober. The Boys of Bummer have grown into the Men of Autumn.

Yet, other than the winning and the record black-and-gold crowds flocking to PNC Park to share the experience, the seasons of 2013 and '14 had little in common.

Last season was a parade, led by a National League Most Valuable Player Award winner (Andrew McCutchen), a league co-homer leader (Pedro Alvarez), a Comeback Player of the Year Award winner (Francisco Liriano) and an All-Star closer (Jason Grilli). Those Pirates rolled with the Majors' best record for much of the season.

These Pirates, as manager Clint Hurdle put it, "had to dig ourselves out of the dirt."

Alvarez crashed offensively, even before throwing issues and ultimately injury made him vanish. Grilli lost his mojo, then his job, and quickly his Pirates uniform. Liriano had one win as of July 22.

By May 20, the Pirates were eight games below .500 (18-26). As late as June 22, they had a losing record (37-38). As late as Aug. 19, they were barely above break-even (64-62).

Then they dug deep, and the digging began. From Aug. 19 until their Sept. 23 clincher of a postseason berth, the Bucs not only went 22-9, but their nine losses were by a total of 11 runs. They were in every game, fighting and watching each other's back, and they won most of them.

"I love our club," Hurdle said. "I loved the club last year, but I love this one for a lot of different reasons. The resiliency of the guys who have been able to continue to post up, the men we've had to add in. In any sport, you'll find the best teams are the ones where somebody just pops up, shows up. You've got a bunch of different stories you didn't have coming in."

Ultimately, it ended with a brief postseason appearance awash with irony.

After being so aware of how they were muffled by top-notch pitching in their final two postseason games of 2013 -- Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals held them to a run in each -- the Bucs' offensive focus was on developing a deeper, more fundamentally sound lineup. They followed through on that for 162 regular season games, across which they abetted their power with discipline (a.330 on-base percentage that was second in the NL) and rallies mushroomed by clutch two-out hitting.

"This club developed an offensive identity, that of a collective group effort. I like the length of the lineup," Hurdle said.

Yet, when it came to another October run-in with an ace, they again couldn't connect the dots or fill in the blanks, as the Giants' Madison Bumgarner shut them out on four hits.

Record: 88-74, 2nd place in NL Central, No. 1 NL Wild Card.

Defining moment: May 18, the nightcap of a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium. Outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata both incurred leg injuries in a first-game loss that dropped the Bucs' record to 17-25. Josh Harrison, who had a total of 51 at-bats in the first 42 games, had to go into the breach and into left field. In the top of the seventh, he homered to snap a 3-3 tie. In the bottom of the eighth, he dove head-long into the left-field corner for a spectacular catch that protected the lead he had provided. After that, Harrison became a constant, starting 115 of the remaining 120 games at four positions, ultimately as the everyday third baseman.

What went right: If measured against preseason expectations, only the unveiling of Jordy Mercer as the regular shortstop and the consistency of McCutchen qualify. Mercer displayed terrific range to his right and a strong arm, and he overcame a nightmarish April with the bat to post a solid season. Despite the first DL stint of his career, McCutchen (.314, 25, 83) banked a season eerily similar to his MVP Award year (.317, 21, 84).

Topping modest expectations, on the other hand were Neil Walker, who set a club record for second basemen with 23 homers, Mark Melancon, who inherited Grilli's job in mid-June and wound up with 33 saves, and Russell Martin, who exceeded his known defensive value by raising his average 64 points to .290 and his OPS by 129 to .832.

What went wrong: Unable to build on his 36-homer 2013 season climaxed by a very strong postseason, Alvarez went cold just as the rest of the team heated up and had just three homers after the All-Star break. In mid-June, three-fifths of the season-opening rotation was down (Gerrit Cole and Liriano both disabled) or out (Wandy Rodriguez's futility led to his May 30 release). Team brass misjudged their projections of the Gaby Sanchez-Ike Davis first base platoon, as the tandem contributed 17 homers, a .226 average and an OPS of .689 -- giving the Bucs the second-lowest production at the position in the NL.

Biggest surprise: Jeff Locke. Surprised by this choice? So were the Pirates. The brass had essentially written him off after his 2013 second-half fade, banishing him to Triple-A Indianapolis. When the rotation was in shambles, he got a call and responded with a 2.38 ERA in eight starts leading up to the All-Star break, and overall he had 13 quality starts among his 21. The Bucs would not have made the postseason without his contributions.

Hitter of the year: McCutchen. Year? How about of the half-century, at least among center fielders? With a .314 average, .410 on-base percentage and .542 slugging average, he became the second center fielder in history to reach the .300/.400/.500 split for a third consecutive season, following Mickey Mantle in 1954-58.

Pitcher of the year: Edinson Volquez. He wasn't only better than in 2013 -- he was tremendous. Controlling his emotions, Volquez controlled hitters every fifth day, dominantly. His season line was impressive as a whole (13-7, 3.04), but here is our favorite take: Deducting his three poorest starts -- even the best have their off days -- leaves him at 13-4 with a 2.25 for his other 28.

Rookie of the year: Gregory Polanco. By default, it has to be him. Until September promotions, he was the only rookie to see substantial action. Even if the ensuing two months could not keep up, his arrival certainly lived up to the anticipation, as he broke in with an 11-game hitting streak and hit in 14 of his first 16 games.

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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.