Milwaukee Brewers' Jonathan Villar (5) rounds third after hitting a grand slam off Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Juan Nicasio, rear, during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. Gene J. PuskarAP Photo
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For all of their steep climbing these past four years, the Pirates have yet to emerge from base camp, largely because of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Base camp isn't a bad place to be. It's far above sea level. But it's also not near the summit.
The following facts should have you seeing red:
• Since the beginning of the 2014 season, a span of 458 games, the Pirates have spent just five days alone in first place in the NL Central — all in the first week of April.
• The Pirates have finished behind the Cardinals for 16 straight seasons and trail them by 3 1⁄2games for the second wild-card spot with the Cardinals arriving Monday for a three-game series.
The visit comes in the wake of a humiliating sweep at the hands of another nemesis, the Milwaukee Brewers, who outscored the Pirates, 18-4, in three games. The final tally Sunday was 10-0, the only consolation being that the Brewers eschewed a late field-goal attempt.
I sat in the crowd for most of the game and couldn't remember the last time the building felt so lifeless.
Oh wait, it was Friday night.
I wondered if Pirates manager Clint Hurdle felt fortunate that his team, losers of six in a row overall and eight of their past nine at PNC Park, still has a pulse.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I've been on teams that were out of it by now. It's early. The opportunity is great.”
Early? I guess, in a late kind of way. You can't help but wonder if the Cardinals again are going play executioner with the Pirates' season.
It's the Cardinals who kept the Pirates from celebrating division titles each of the past three years, by a total of seven games.
It's the Cardinals who eliminated the Pirates from the 2013 playoffs (thank you, David Freese) and dropped them into one-game death matches against Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta the next two years.
It's the Cardinals who continue to sustain roster-ravaging injury epidemics only to keep marching forward like some indestructible cyborg, riding the annoying exploits of players such as Jedd Gyorko who seem specifically designed to drive Pirates fans insane.
And it's the Cardinals who stand in the Pirates' way again.
There is no mystery to the Cardinals' mastery. They always beat the Pirates when the games matter most — in August and September. Look at the Pirates' recent record against the Cardinals in those months:
• In 2013, they were 3-7, including a devastating September sweep in St. Louis.
• In 2014 they were 2-4, including a devastating September sweep in St. Louis.
• Last year, they were 4-5, including the infamous Charlie Morton meltdown.
That's 9-16 altogether, and that won't get it done. Besides this series, the Pirates will end the season with a three-game set in St. Louis. Finishing ahead of the compromised Cardinals —who were destroyed by injuries earlier this summer but managed to stay afloat — would not guarantee a playoff spot, but finishing behind them again would be unacceptable.
And if the pattern stays the same, don't the Pirates become the Cincinnati Bengals to the Cardinals' Steelers? The Washington Capitals to the Cardinals' Penguins?
The Pirates have faced their share of adversity this season, too, just not as much as the Cardinals or, say, the Dodgers. It's not surprising at all that the Pirates remain in the postseason hunt. More than half the teams — pretty much the non-tanking teams — in the National League are locked into the postseason or have a legit chance.
We might soon witness the end of the Andrew McCutchen era, you know. It's visible from here. The Pirates have accomplished amazing things in this era, and yet, when you really look at it, all of their significant achievements have occurred near base camp, none near the summit.
That is mostly because the Cardinals keep punching them in the gut.