When the Pittsburgh Pirates won by walk-off Monday night against the Kansas City Royals, it marked their 75 th victory to match their win total from the 2017 season.
The Pirates are within striking distance of a winning season, something that might seem insignificant given that they are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture.
With the Pirates on the brink of being knocked out of contention for the NL Central title on Tuesday – either a loss to the Royals or a Chicago Cubs win would do the trick – I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle how important it was to finish with a winning record.
“It’s always important to have a winning season,” Hurdle said. “When things are taken off the table – to win the division is taken away – we are trying to win every game we play. We also are trying to improve our team daily, so there’s a methodology to that. Sometimes, it makes sense to other people; sometimes, it makes no sense to other people.
“There is a level of competition that you like to keep in place when you’re playing teams that are fighting – the Brewers, the Cubs, the Cardinals. Different storyline here (with the Pirates and Royals) – there were a lot of young players on the field last night, both sides.”
A winning season should be the goal, if only because the Pirates have had so few over the past three decades.
Consider that the Pirates have had only six winning seasons since 1990. All six of those teams advanced to the postseason, and only one finished with less than 94 victories (88-74 in 2014).
The winning campaigns, however, came in short stretches. The Pirates averaged 96.3 wins from 1990-92, but lost in the NLCS all three years. They averaged 93.3 wins from 2013-15, but lost in the NLDS once and in NL wild-card games at PNC Park twice.
Outside of those six winning seasons, the Pirates haven’t cracked the 80-win in a non-playoff campaign since 1988, when they went 85-75.
That’s an amazing all-or-nothing approach toward winning baseball.
Going into Tuesday’s game against the Royals at PNC Park, the Pirates needed to win seven of their 13 remaining games to finish above .500.
“You keep score for a reason. Winning matters,” said Hurdle, who was hired following a 105-loss season in 2010. “I think, within the context of the clubhouse, we talk about winning way more than you would even guess we talk about winning.
“However, we don’t need to get a shirt that says, ‘Let’s win’ or ‘We need to win 82.’ We had this conversation when I first got here. I get that. I think there’s always a sense of winning more games than you’re losing when you get to that point where it’s real. It’s real for us now. We want to win more than 82 games. However, our focus is to win more games than we lose right now because of where we are.”
The focus, however, seems to be more on evaluating the September call-ups than anything. Or, as Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass put it, for the young players to show their capabilities and what they’re capable of.
Pirates starting right-hander Joe Musgrove won Game 5 of the World Series last fall with the world champion Houston Astros, so it’s no surprise he wants a winning record.
“I think we’d like to finish above .500,” Musgrove said. “I think every team would, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the focus of our team. We’re trying to win as many games as we can. Regardless of whether we’re in it or out of it, you always want to try to go out and win.”
The Pirates had five winning seasons in the 1960s, including a World Series championship in ’60. They had nine winning seasons in the ‘70s, with World Series titles in ’71 and ’79.
To put this in perspective, the Pirates had more winning seasons (four) in the 1980s than in any decade since. And the ‘80s are considered one of the worst decades in modern franchise history, as the Pirates followed the ‘79 World Series championship with drug trials and a slow decline that reached its nadir with a 104-loss season in ‘85.
I would imagine that most, if not all of the Pirates players aren’t aware that the club has had only six winning seasons in three decades. They seem more concerned with trying to finish the season strong, knowing that playing .500 baseball would allow them to finish with 81 wins.
“Once you’re out of it, it takes the ultimate goal out of the picture of making it to the postseason and trying to win a championship,” Musgrove said. “It doesn’t make the season become a waste, and it doesn’t mean you burn your last 20-30 games just to get through the season.”
But there is importance in the experience and experiments that can occur in a stress-free September. The Pirates have tinkered with an all-homegrown lineup. They have started rookie infielders Kevin Kramer, Kevin Newman and Pablo Reyes, sometimes at positions they haven’t played much, so that they can make evaluations.
That can be invaluable to a team that has important decisions to make in the offseason, such as whether to pick up the option on Josh Harrison, re-sign free agent Jordy Mercer and go to arbitration with Corey Dickerson or to invest in stopgap measures at their respective positions.
But the goal should be a winning season, every season.
Even if the goal is only 82 wins, it’s better than 78 in ’16 and 75 last year. Not only would it exceed expectations for a club some predicted to lose 100 games after the Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole trades but also give incentive to the front office to invest for a playoff push.
“The goal was to make the playoffs but whatever we do this year sets the benchmark higher for next year,” Musgrove said. “The more wins we can pull out in these last two weeks, we’ll set the tone for next year. We always try to continue to grow and move up. If we get 82 wins this year, we’d like to exceed that next year.”
That was Musgrove’s way of saying winning breeds winning, a mentality missing from the Pirates for the better part of three decades.
When it comes to a winning season, the Pirates need to show their capabilities and what they’re capable of.
Does that make sense?
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.