By Joe Lemire
September 28, 2012

NEW YORK -- The season arc for the Pirates now looks familiar: trudge through April and May with an even record, catch fire in June and July while ascending into the playoff picture and then collapse in August and September, falling out of contention and below .500 for the season.

This year's freefall -- from a mid-August wild-card lead to a late-September destiny with a losing record -- may be the most difficult for their fans to stomach in the streak of what is soon to be 20 straight seasons with a losing record and without a postseason berth.

That primal, yet fickle, feeling of hope returned to Pirates baseball when they went on a hot streak in June and July each of the past two seasons.

That buoyancy then deflated as the late-summer losses began to mount. The consecutive collapses were disheartening.

Looked at another way, however, the perception would be different. Disregard the timeline and consider only the end product. The Pirates won 57 games in 2010, 72 games in 2011 and 76 games so far in 2012, on their way to 78 to 80, most likely.

"I think we're a better team here this year," Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan said. "If you're from the outside looking at it, you would have to say that it's the exact same. . . . I felt like we were going to make a whole lot better of a run."

"We're getting better," centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We're getting stronger. It's a work in progress. We know it's not going to happen overnight. We know we're not where we want to be, but we have to continue to keep pushing forward and keep working hard and keep continuing to do the things that we need to do to get us in that position that we want to be in."

Consider the developments from 2011 to '12:

• Their homegrown, five-tool centerfielder, McCutchen, blossomed into a bonafide MVP candidate and batting title contender, while similarly homegrown first-round picks at second base (Neil Walker) and third base (Pedro Alvarez) were also major offensive contributors.

• They are one of only four teams to boast three players (McCutchen, Alvarez and Garrett Jones) with at least 25 home runs after not having any such players the previous season.

• The pitching staff, aided by trade acquisitions A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, cut its ERA to 3.92, its lowest mark since 1998, while improving its strikeout-to-walk ratio to its best (2.40) in franchise history. (Admittedly, the league-wide K/BB rate is the highest of the modern era, but the Pirates' mark this year is still a drastic 24 percent improvement on last year.)

• For the first five of the season's six months, the Hanrahan-led bullpen had a top-five ERA and the game's best rate of stranding inherited runners.

• They improved their team fielding from a ranking among the bottom-10 in the majors last year to the top-10 this year, according to defensive efficiency.

• Their run differential, though still negative, was reduced by some 80 percent.

• The pre-collapse high-water marks both happened with the team sitting at 47 losses, only this year Pittsburgh was 10 wins farther along: 53-47 on July 25 last season and 63-47 on Aug. 8 this season.

Those are major material gains, yet at the end of the day, one's win-loss record trumps everything. At 76-80 entering play on Friday, the 2012 Pirates will be spared the organization's first 90-loss season since 2004 but they are a longshot six-game winning streak away from a winning record, and the club isn't where it wants to be.

Before his team lost three of four games to the Mets this week, manager Clint Hurdle was asked about the meaning of a winning record. "We still haven't banged the drum and gotten the gavel out and said here's what we need to do. Everybody in this building is aware of it. That would be a good finish. It would take seven wins to get to 82 and we've got 10 games left. It's not a rallying cry, but we're aware of it. Our focus continues to be . . . on the game we're playing tonight and not getting too far ahead of ourselves."

"Anything short of a World Series championship [means] we've fallen short of our goals," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We do anticipate at some point -- hopefully sooner than later -- surpassing the .500 mark, but that's not a goal. . . . That's something that happens in the process of re-establishing championship baseball in Pittsburgh."

For what it's worth, those are the perfect two responses from these men. The GM, whose job description is more long-term and over-arching, is focused only on the end game of a World Series title, while the manager, whose role is more immediate and more concerned with day-to-day development, is more willing to acknowledge a short-term benefit, even if he too has his eyes on a bigger objective. "Our goals haven't changed until they've been eliminated from us," Hurdle said.

Top management decided not make any changes with its general manager, his top assistants or the manager, though team president Frank Coonelly's statement on Wednesday night made clear that confidence in those personnel "should not be misunderstood with acceptance of another poor finish at the Major League level" and didn't mince words when describing the mood.

"For the second consecutive year, we put ourselves in an excellent position to meet our objective of winning our division but did not play nearly well enough during the last two months of the season to accomplish it," Coonelly's statement read. "Our fans are understandably disappointed and frustrated, as is every individual in the organization."

The Pirates have spent a lot of money on recent draft picks and have improved their farm system, and certainly their major league product has gotten better.

But at the same time, are they really ready to contend? Among the 16 NL clubs, they rank 10th in runs scored and seventh in runs allowed, 14th in on-base percentage and eighth in ERA. Those are, collectively speaking, underwhelming ranks. Free-agent expenditure on Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth has proved unwise, though the trades for Burnett and Rodriguez fared better. Deals for first baseman Gaby Sanchez and outfielder Travis Snider also helped, with all four players acquired via trade also around for at least 2013, if not longer.

What the Pirates do this offseason is critical to where they go from this crossroads at which they've made strides but aren't a sure bet to make the leap into the postseason.

"There's not one magic-bullet answer as to how we solve the problem going forward," Huntington said. "We obviously felt like we had improved our major league club. We felt like our depth was improved. And we felt like we were ready to sustain the success we were having at the major league level, and that hasn't happened.

"We've got to take a long, hard look at ourselves internally and figure out why it didn't happen and, more importantly, how we ensure that [a late-season slide] doesn't happen again."

The mistake would be to allow the Pirates' collapse to cloud the evaluation too much. Don't ignore the progress. But do wonder if they are able to keep moving forward.

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