PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Pirates did not wind up having a Cinderella-type season.
It seemed like that might happen when the Pirates got off to a 20-8 and led the National League Central, fueled by the return of Andrew McCutchen and the addition of other veterans in the offseason.
Alas, reality struck. Though the Pirates remained in first place until the middle of June, a 10-game losing streak from June 13-22 exposed them as pretenders rather than contenders.
The Pirates bottomed out on Aug. 27 when they fell 15 games under .500 at 58-73. By then, the franchise was in the middle of a reboot with most of the vets gone and the roster filled with young players. The Pirates then went 18-13 in their last 31 games.
The final record was 76-86 record but left the question of just exactly who are the Pirates?
“I think a little bit of a mix of the last month or whatever and the beginning,” left fielder Bryan Reynolds said. “We just lost it in the middle for a little bit and struggled bad. But it’s probably good for us to feel some struggle and everybody just feel struggle and also find our way out of it.”
After all the ups and downs, the Pirates finished with 14 more wins than they had in 2022 when they went 62-100 for their second straight triple-digit loss season.
General manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton continually talked throughout the offseason and spring training about the need for the Pirates to start winning more games. They did that and finished fourth in the National League Central, a distant 16 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers but also out of last place for the first time since 2018.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Shelton said. “That’s the important part of that. We’ve won (14) more games, that’s better. We need to continue to get better, but I think during the year, we’ve seen a lot of growth and that’s really important for us.”
That is not to say that the Pirates are ready to contend next season. The rotation, in particular, needs a lot of work, as the Pirates finished the season with just two reliable starting pitchers in Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo.
The Pirates’ 4.60 ERA was 22nd among the major-league clubs, certainly not a championship-caliber mark. They were also 22nd in runs scored with an average of 4.27 a game.
That shows there is work left for Cherington, Shelton and the rest of the baseball operations staff. Yet the Pirates’ situation no longer seems so hopeless after they went a combined 142-242 over the previous three seasons.
Yet there was optimism in the Pirates’ clubhouse on the final day of the season Sunday and it just didn’t stem from a 3-0 victory over the postseason-bound Miami Marlins.
The players admitted that they were a bit envious to watch the Marlins clinch a playoff berth Saturday night at PNC Park. The Phillies also qualified for the postseason last Tuesday when they beat Pirates in Philadelphia.
Usually reserved third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes talked about the Pirates turning the tables in 2024 and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“We know we have the guys to do it,” Hayes said. “We’re one little notch away. We showed what we can do the first month of the season. I know guys are looking forward to next year. We already started talking about it, even though we were out of it. We’ve already started talking about doing what those teams are doing to clinch, to go into the playoffs. We’re going to be there next year.”
The Pirates might be getting ahead of themselves. It seems 2025 is a more realistic time to pursue a pennant. However, the clubhouse vibe is better than it has been in a long time.
“We’re playing better baseball, pitching, hitting, we’re putting it all together,” Keller said. “So, absolutely, I think it gives everybody the idea that we’re going to make it but the expectation that we’re going to make it next year. That’s kind of what’s changed. We’re fully expecting to be there next year.”
If nothing else, the Pirates are relevant again and are winning back fans.
The Pirates finished with a season attendance of 1,630,624 in 81 home dates. That was an increase of more than 373,000 over last year’s 1,257,458.
The Pirates are at least relevant again. That’s an accomplishment for a franchise that had been justifiably ignored in recent years.