By Rob Rossi
Pirates starter Gerrit Cole pitches in the third inning against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Cole tied his career high with 12 strikeouts.
The Pirates lost Sunday, wasting a gem from arguably their best pitcher, leaving him unavailable for an elimination-postseason game at home against an opponent that has finished two of the past four seasons as baseball's champions.
It was a great day.
It was the day the Pirates arrived.
They're not completely there yet. That won't happen until they get to the World Series, which means it might not happen this year.
Still, consistent contenders never emerge overnight. They're not built just through drafting and developing. They grow from experiences.
The Pirates went 17-9 in September, a superb month to cap their first outstanding unofficial second half (39-28) in manager Clint Hurdle's four seasons.
It's no coincidence that happened in the season after their return to the postseason. Having played six postseason games last October, this club was more prepared to finish stronger than it had started (18-26). They knew what real pressure felt like.
Arriving is a process, and it happens before a team wins a championship.
It happens when a team takes a significant step, and sometimes those aren't easy to spot in the moment.
Last season seemed significant at the time, but one playoff appearance after 20 consecutive years of losing only proved the Pirates could put together a good year, and good years are nothing special. They just seem that way when they don't happen very often.
We've witnessed two good years from the Pirates.
They can do better, and Hurdle cited the Ghosts of Greatness Past when acknowledging that Sunday morning.
“We're trying to make history here,” Hurdle said. “Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell. We walk away from this game, where are we going?”
Going backward is where, had Gerrit Cole not started against the Reds on Sunday afternoon.
I spent most of my teens, my entire 20s and the first half of my 30s watching backward baseball, and I'm over it. Give me a team that tries to go forward.
Give me what the Pirates gave themselves Sunday — a chance to win the division.
Can we just take a breath and think about what could have happened?
The Pirates could have won. The Cardinals could have lost. The division could have been decided in a game between these clubs at St. Louis on Monday.
It was really that simple.
Some factors complicated the situation. Two significant ones included the Reds' Johnny Cueto going for his 20th win against the Pirates, and the Cardinals having the option of starting Adam Wainwright against the baseball-worst Diamondbacks.
The odds weren't in the Pirates favor.
Well, guess what? Odds aren't in their favor against the Giants in the wild-card game Wednesday night, either. There's no sure bet in an elimination game. That's why they were smart to try to win the division.
But nothing pertaining to Wednesday night should have mattered to the Pirates on Sunday morning, anyway.
They did not control their destiny, but their destiny also had not been determined. Cole took the bump at Great American Ball Park knowing only one thing to be true: If the Pirates lost to the Reds, their division-title pursuit was finished.
The Cardinals —– the standard for excellence in National League, not just this Central division — would have done exactly what the Pirates did Sunday. They would have done anything possible to go for the big prize.
Winning mattered. Pirates fans shouldn't overlook that, because so many for so long have been doubters, wondering if winning would ever matter to the Pirates.
Does ownership care? Will management make the right choices? Are these players good enough?
I've asked those questions. You've asked those questions. The Pirates have seemingly been about those questions for a couple of generations. That wasn't the case Sunday morning, when they arrived for their 162nd game of a season that was already guaranteed to be another good year.
Despite Sunday's outcome, anything is still possible when it comes to the biggest prize.
Edinson Volquez is likely going to start in the wild-card game. He might not strike out 12, as Cole did in seven innings Sunday. He might just roll, like Francisco Liriano did in the wild-card game last October.
Volquez will probably give the Pirates a great chance to win. His 1.85 ERA since June 23 is fourth best among major league starters. That includes Giants' wild-card starter Madison Bumgarner, who has a 3.30 ERA over that span.
“We know what it's going to be like on Wednesday, what the Giants are going to have to deal with coming into our ballpark and playing,” second baseman Neil Walker said.
Expect a blacked-out sellout crowd that will make baseball's best ballpark feel like sports' greatest home-field advantage.
“We're excited about that,” Walker said.
They're just not all that satisfied with it.
“Absolutely not,” Walker said.
The wild-card game wasn't good enough for the Pirates on Sunday, and that made it a great day for Pittsburgh baseball.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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