We all know how the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season came to an end, on the arm of Jake Arrieta and in front of the biggest crowd in PNC Park history. It was an unfortunate ending to an otherwise memorable season. We’ve now had some time to recover from that Wild Card loss (hopefully), and it’s almost to the point when we’ll be looking forward to the offseason. But before we look ahead to what Neal Huntington could do this offseason, I wanted to take one last look back on the 2015 season that was and reflect on another season of exciting Bucco baseball.
In 2014, many experts expected the Pirates to finish around .500, but they managed to win 88 games and make the playoffs for a second straight season. So coming into this season, expectations were high. Many expected the Pirates to compete for a division title, and the optimists thought Pittsburgh would win 90+ games. Last offseason brought change. Key pieces of the 2014 team were gone, including Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez, and Justin Wilson. There were new additions to the team, including A.J. Burnett, who was coming off a season in which he led the entire National League in walks and had an ERA north of 4.50, and Francisco Cervelli, a career backup who had never appeared in more than 100 games in a season and had recently been suspended 50 games in relation to the biogenesis scandal. Many claimed that Huntington yet again hadn’t done enough to address the needs of the team in the offseason, and yet again the Pirates went into spring training with some question marks.
There were two main positions battles during spring training. Who would be the fourth outfielder? And who would win the fifth starter spot? Andrew Lambo won that outfield spot even though he had another poor spring campaign, while we were all surprised to hear Jeff Locke won the final rotation spot over Vance Worley. Lambo ended up losing an entire season after poor play and plantar fasciitis, and both Locke and Worley would disappoint with their 2015 seasons.
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The regular season did not start out well for the Pirates, similar to the previous two seasons. The Pirates held an 18-22 record heading into play on May 22nd, and numerous players came out of the gates cold. Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer each batted under .220 in April, and McCutchen battled a lingering knee injury (or so we were told). He shrugged off these injury claims, and proceeded to surge forward offensively. And as McCutchen goes, so too go the Pirates. They would need to surge forward, as the Cardinals had taken a commanding division lead, threatening at times to go 10+ games up on the Pirates in the first few months of the season. But from that May 22nd date-on, the Pirates were one of the best teams in all of baseball.
The Pirates would reel off multiple seven-game win streaks en route to a huge four-game series with the Cardinals right before the All-Star break. And oh what a series it was. After dropping the first game of the series, the Pirates would win the next three, and the final two in dramatic fashion, in arguably the two most memorable moments of the year. With the Pirates down one in the bottom of the 14th in the second-to-last game of the series, Andrew McCutchen launched a two-run home run into straightaway center, sealing an incredible walk-off victory. And on Sunday Night Baseball in the last game of the first half of the season, Gregory Polanco would cap a three-run bottom of the 10th with an RBI single to right field against closer Trevor Rosenthal, giving the Pirates all the momentum in the world closing out the first half.
The All-Star break had the Pirates in a great spot. They sent four all-stars to the game: McCutchen, Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Mark Melancon. It was Burnett’s first and last All-Star appearnace of his career, and each Pirate was very deserving of his selection. The team was just 2.5 games out of first place in the division, and many media outlets were anointing the Pirates as the best team in all of baseball. For the first time under Clint Hurdle, the Pirates could pull out an NL Central title.
But the second half of the season didn’t start out well. Pittsburgh was swept in Milwaukee and then lost two out of three to Kansas City. But even though the Pirates spent all of the second half of the season chasing the Cardinals, they never gave up hope. The Pirates didn’t fare well against their division, but they continued to dominate non-division opponents, including the surging Mets and the Dodgers. But the team also had to battle the coinciding injuries of Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and A.J. Burnett, each of whom would miss more than a month of action. These injuries would in part prompt Neal Huntington to strike deals leading up to and on the day of the July 31st trade deadline for Aramis Ramirez, Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ. Looking back, each of those deals worked out well for the Pirates.
The All-Star break had the Pirates in a great spot…The team was just 2.5 games out of first place in the division, and many media outlets were anointing the Pirates as the best team in all of baseball. For the first time under Clint Hurdle, the Pirates could pull out an NL Central title.
Throughout the months of August and September, the Pirates would chip into the Cardinals’ division lead, knocking it down to just two games at one point, while also trying to hold off the Chicago Cubs for the first Wild Card spot. But on September 17th, tragedy would strike the Pirates as Jung Ho Kang, a fantastic offseason signing by Huntington and a player that had turned into a star for Pittsburgh, would be taken out on a slide by Cubs’ outfielder Chris Coghlan and would be lost to injury for the season. Who’s to say how the Pirates’ luck would have changed if he hadn’t been injured that day?
But for as much as the Pirates tried, they just couldn’t catch the Cardinals. Their fate rested on the arms of their own Gerrit Cole, who had turned into the ace the Pirates have always desired, and Jake Arrieta, a starter for the Cubs who had delivered one of the most remarkable second half runs for a starting pitcher in MLB history. A one-game Wild Card playoff would determine a 98-win season, as the division crown had eluded them once again.
The Pirates’ season would end on Wednesday, October 7th, in a 4-0 shutout to the Cubs in that one-game playoff. Some of us are still recovering from such a sudden end to such a memorable, remarkable season. Soon, though, it will be time for us to look ahead to the upcoming offseason and what the future holds for this franchise. Huntington has a lot of topics to address this offseason. What does the future hold for Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, and will either be back with the team in 2016? Will the Pirates continue their trend of trading closers at their peak value and deal Mark Melancon, coming off an incredible 50+ save season? Does J.A. Happ return as a Pirate next year? Will Gregory Polanco get an extension that he declined before the start of the 2015 season? Those and so many more questions will be answered before the 2016 season.
For now, however, Pirate fans are in an odd state. The Steelers’ and Penguins’ seasons are underway, but for die-hard Pirate fans, this is not enough. The MLB playoffs continue, but who should we root for? In the end, let’s not forget to look back on what was such an incredible season for the Pirates before we look forward. 98 wins ain’t too shabby.