Same old, same old for the Pirates

Is it fair to say that Jerry Meals cost the Pirates a chance at a winning season? Probably not. But can a case be made that his blown call didn’t help? Absolutely. And if instant replay ever does find its way into the game on a widespread basis, it should be called the Jerry Meals rule to commemorate his role in bringing it about.

Chances are, you already know the details surrounding this one fateful play, but let’s go into them for just a moment. For starters, Pittsburgh hasn’t has a winning baseball team since Sid Bream scored from second base to end the 1992 season. That’s 19 consecutive years of sub-.500 baseball. No professional sports team on this continent has been losing for so long. I’m used to losing as a Cubs fan, but this one is beyond anything that  I can imagine.

But things were different this year. The team was rolling along, and found itself battling with both the Cardinals and the Brewers for the division lead into July. After the All-Star break, even. Things were looking good for the Bucs, and they had reason to like their chances in the second half of the season. A winning record probably seemed like an afterthought to the Pirates and their long-suffering fans.

On July 25, the Pirates beat the Braves to open a four-game series in Atlanta. They stood at 53-47, tied with St. Louis for the divisional lead. In the second game of the series, they jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, before the Braves plated 3 to tie the game in the third inning. And then both offenses went cold. After fifteen more innings of scoreless baseball, the game was still tied.

But baseball is the only team sport that does not use a clock, and there are no shootouts, or penalty kicks, or anything that might send all the players and fans home  with a quick final result. Somebody was going to have to push one across in order to end this game.

The Pirates went 1-2-3 in the top of the 19th, but a walk and a single by the Braves put runners on second and third with two outs. Conventional wisdom dictates that the next batter should be intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at any base. But there were two factors at play with that decision, the first being that pitcher Scott Proctor was due up next. Intentionally walking a pitcher is almost unheard of, and the Braves had no relievers left to bring in. Proctor was definitely going to take that at-bat.

But there was a second factor for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to consider. If he walked Proctor, the next hitter would be Martin Prado, who sported a respectable .268 average but was 0-for-9 in the game so far. If the baseball cliche “due for a hit” has any meaning at all, it applied to Martin Prado at that moment. So Hurdle went ahead and pitched to Proctor.

Everyone knew right away that Meals missed the call at the plate. But had the bases been loaded on the play, the catcher would not have needed to apply the tag at all, since the runner would have been forced out at home instead. The need to apply the tag, and Meals’ inability to see the tag as it was applied, is what caused that sorry scene to unfold in the first place.

But back to the Pirates for a moment. Including that loss, they have gone 14-35 since Meals blew the call. Their winning percentage of .285 over that period would translate to 46-116, if it were spread across an entire season. That’s not possible, of course, but it is a pretty strong indicator of the terminal tailspin that the Pirates have been in since that early morning in Atlanta.

If Meals got that call right, there’s no guarantee that the Pirates would have won the game. But the way that they lost was so jarring, so bewildering, so completely nonsensical that it must have had an impact on their collective spirit. There’s no other way to explain how the bottom has fallen out for them since that moment.

So next year, the Pirates will go back to work and see if they can avoid extending their record to 20 straight seasons. Hurdle will be back as manager next year, and if the gains they have made this year are any indication of their future, the Pirates’ long nightmare will be over one day soon. But it’s a shame that it didn’t happen this season.

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