This time, the Pittsburgh Pirates never saw it coming.
Not in June, when their slumbering offense erupted behind the bats of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Not in July when they moved into a tie for first place in the National League Central while turning an obscure movie reference into a mild cultural phenomenon.
Not even in August, when a 19-inning victory over St. Louis served as a bit of karmic justice after that fateful night in Atlanta in 2011 when a botched safe call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals seemed to turn a once-promising season into just another 90-loss campaign to stack next to all the rest.
Nope, this time there was no moment when things went awry. Instead the Pirates unraveled slowly and steadily over the final seven weeks, somehow turning a 16-game cushion over the .500 mark in early August into a 79-83 finish and a record 20th straight losing season.
The Streak lives on. Again.
“I understand we’re under a pretty big microscope and everybody wants to try and figure out what happened,” reliever Jason Grilli said. “Well, it’s basically in the beginning we played good. The second half we didn’t. End of story.”
One that’s become all too familiar for baseball’s most beleaguered franchise. Only this time it felt different. The Pirates vowed they’d learned their lessons after their freefall over the last two months of the 2011 season. They printed t-shirts with the words “finish” splashed across the front. They signed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to a lucrative contract extension and traded for A.J. Burnett to give the pitching staff the ace it desperately needed.
Led by Burnett’s fierce competitiveness, the Pirates survived an April and May in which the offense all but disappeared then took off in June when McCutchen developed into an MVP candidate and Alvarez became the slugger management envisioned when Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft.
By the final week of the season, the “Z” had been replaced by “L” after “L.”
Taken at face value, the Pirates’ best season in 20 years would be seen as a sign of progress. This is the same club that was a major league worst 57-105 two years ago.
Yet after flirting with heights not seen since Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium two decades ago, Neil Walker’s aftertaste of “the Collapse 2” will linger well into the offseason.