THE DAY IT began to unravel, Aug. 7, 2012, the Pirates stood in second place, a 62-46 record, with the franchise's first playoff berth in nearly two decades more or less assured. Even late in the game, Pittsburgh looked indomitable: Jason Grilli, then baseball's best setup man -- having allowed just four runs in the past three months of relief -- entered in the eighth with a 4-3 lead. But then Grilli gave up four runs, his replacements gave up three more, and the Pirates seemed to lose more than the 10-4 contest to the .500 D-backs.
Because suddenly the Bucs were losing three straight to the lowly Padres, then three more to the just-as-bad Brewers. The confidence that had sustained the club through an unlikely summer of success vanished. And everyone in town knew it. Second baseman and Pittsburgh native Neil Walker tried to get into a crowded bar after a loss by saying he played for the Pirates. The bouncer denied him and said, "Go win a World Series first." A homeless man in front of the stadium delivered manager Clint Hurdle the same greeting each day: "You know, you're not that good." Pittsburgh lost 37 of its final 54 games and finished the year 79-83 -- a 20th consecutive losing season, a North American professional sports record. It was, owner Bob Nutting says, "an epic disappointment and collapse."
He vowed to not let it happen again. Nutting owns Seven Springs Mountain Resort, an hour southeast of Pittsburgh. For two and a half days this offseason, he gathered his brain trust -- GM Neal Huntington, Hurdle and assistant GMs Kyle Stark and Greg Smith -- inside a condominium unit at the corner of the ski slope overlooking the Laurel Highlands. They were not to emerge until they'd come up with a solution for 2013.
The conclusion? The Pirates were good -- five years of player development under Huntington had begun to pay off -- but the team lacked the roster depth and experience to sustain its initial success. "And the biggest chance to turn a corner and the biggest chance to impact our direct major league team," Huntington says, "was the acquisition of a good catcher."
So the Pirates signed Russell Martin to the largest free agent contract in team history -- two years at $17 million -- and Pittsburgh did nothing but pile up W's this spring. It was in part thanks to Martin: He's known for framing "strikes" that are two inches below the zone and for possessing one of the strongest arms in the Show. In 2012 the Pirates ranked dead last with an 11 percent rate of runners caught stealing, nabbing just 19 of them. This year, the Pirates ranked sixth through Aug. 27, and Martin led the majors with 32 runners thrown out.
But it wasn't just Martin. Pittsburgh's early success stemmed from the surprising comeback of starter Francisco Liriano, the emergence of starter Jeff Locke, the consistent excellence of A.J. Burnett, the all-out dominance of the bullpen and the MVP-caliber play of centerfielder Andrew McCutchen. By early August, the Pirates had amassed a 70-44 record (tops in MLB), had the lowest ERA in baseball and had come back to win the third-most games in the NL.
Still, Nutting could not ignore last year's collapse; he wouldn't dare entertain thoughts of the postseason. "I would just be scared to death to be projecting out too far," he said in mid-August. As if on cue, the Pirates began to skid, losing seven of nine, dropping their third straight series and falling short in three extra-inning games in a week. In the brutal NL Central, Pittsburgh's four-game lead over the Cardinals dropped to one.
WILLIAM FAULKNER LIKED to say that the past isn't dead -- it's not even past. For decades, the Pirates lived by the Nobel winner's maxim. Past and present meant the same thing: more losing.
Yet this team is actually a culmination of positives, of wins, and knows it. The process began back in 2007, when Nutting took control of the club and hired Huntington and they agreed to make one unwavering commitment: The Bucs would acquire and develop more talent than ever.
Nutting had allowed Huntington to shell out bonuses for top picks Pedro Alvarez ($6 million) in 2008, Jameson Taillon ($6.5 million, the most ever given to a high school player) in 2010 and Gerrit Cole ($8 million) in 2011. In the draft's later rounds, year after year they strove to get more value, part of the franchise's broader approach to do more with less, much like the Rays."We really shifted that whole culture," Nutting says. "How do we build a profile on not 10 players but on several hundred players?"
To help sign all these guys, the Pirates increased scouts from 20 to 35, and to restore Pittsburgh's reputation in Latin America as The Team -- the one that landed Roberto Clemente and opened up baseball's most fruitful pipeline of talent -- Nutting invested $5 million in a new academy in the Dominican Republic. The previous facility relied on a dilapidated clubhouse and hardscrabble fields that were adjacent to a school without proper windows, frequented by chickens fleeing from neighborhood coops.
At first, fans saw no progress because the club was still waiting for the youth to be ready. The Pirates lost 94, then 95, then 99 and then 105 games in a season. It took until 2011 and 2012 before some acquisitions proved to be savvy ones. In 2011 centerfielder McCutchen made his first All-Star team. In 2012 outfielder Starling Marte was called up, the first impact player developed in the Pirates' Dominican Republic academy. Along the way, the team looked for value veteran buys, which is how Grilli emerged as a lockdown closer after a decade of toiling in the majors and how Burnett returned to ace form after unraveling in New York.
When the talent began to coalesce once again this year, it no longer felt temporary. "It went from 'We believe we can win' to 'We expect to win,' " Burnett says. "We've held steadfast. That's a sailing term, a pirate term," Hurdle says with a grin.
McCutchen is having another MVP-caliber season, ranking second in the NL with 6.7 Wins Above Replacement through Aug. 27. Alvarez, the third baseman, has launched at least 30 home runs for the second consecutive season. Burnett is headed toward the lowest ERA of his career. Liriano will be a notable mention for the Cy Young Award and a top candidate for a second comeback player of the year honor. Setup man and fill-in closer Mark Melancon (replacing Grilli, in his time on the DL) might finish with an ERA that starts with a zero. Cole is an ROY candidate.
After 20 years of losing, 82 wins -- the number that assures a winning season -- will not even be cause for celebration.
"Heck no!" McCutchen shouted after a recent W against Miami, offended by the notion. "I don't care about 82 wins. We have a bigger and brighter future we're shooting for."
Since dropping those seven of nine games, the Pirates have steadied themselves. As of Aug. 28, according to ESPN.com, the club had a 95.4 percent chance of at least making the wild-card game.