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Pirates go from first to free fall

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Associated Press
August 9, 2011
— As the botched plays and bad losses and loud boos at PNC Park mounted in recent days, Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates stood firm in reciting a familiar refrain.

Over the course of a 162-game season, they rationalized, every club eventually endures a slump, a stretch of poor play, a losing streak.


"We know there's no reason to panic," outfielder Garrett Jones said, "because even the best teams have rough patches like this."


But not one this costly this quickly in major league history.


Leading the NL Central on July 25, the Pirates lost the next day when plate umpire Jerry Meals admittedly made the wrong call in the 19th inning at Atlanta. And by Sunday night, Pittsburgh had lost 10 in a row and suddenly found itself trailing by 10 games.


Never before had a first-place team plunged 10 games back in a 13-day span, according to STATS LLC.


Coming off the worst homestand in their 125-year existence, the Pirates finally ended their skid Monday night with a 5-0 victory over the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.


"To go from in the hunt to out of the hunt in 10 games like this, it's bad," infielder Brandon Wood said after Sunday's 7-3 loss to San Diego, finishing an 0-7 week at home.


"It's amazing how quick things can change. But on the other hand, they can change that quick in the other direction as well," he said.


Look at the Red Sox, the Pirates say, who started 0-6 and now have the best record in the American League. Or the Brewers, who have gone on separate 0-7 and 1-7 runs but still lead the NL Central.


They had better start heading the other direction soon if the Pirates are to salvage a season that so surprisingly was filled with such promise before the bottom fell out.


A year after losing 105 games for their North American major professional sports record 18th consecutive losing season, these Pirates peaked at 51-44 and were five games over .500 in July for the first time since 1992 when the trouble began with that 4-3 loss to the Braves.


Pittsburgh's players had woke up that morning knowing they were on a team tied for first place, poised to be buyers at the trading deadline for the first time in 14 years and having had captivated a long-dormant fan base back home.


Less than two weeks later, having acquired Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick to help for a possible playoff push, the Pirates were 54-59 and seemingly spiraling toward yet another sub-.500 campaign. They'd been outscored 82-37 during the 10-game skid and dropped 12 of 13 since peaking.


An embarrassing sweep at the hands of the last-place Padres—the lowest-scoring team in the NL, they put up a team-record 35 runs in a three-game series—followed sweeps at Philadelphia and at home against the Chicago Cubs.


The sellout crowds that had been drawn in by the strong play of the Pirates in June and the first three weeks of July were booing during losses of 15-5 and 13-2 on Friday and Saturday.


Hurdle, in his first year of managing the Pirates, understood the fans' reaction.


"If you've ever been involved in sports at any level, you've been involved in a situation where you don't win," Hurdle said. "At the major league level, this is the life we've all chosen, so you understand what comes with it, whether it be public scrutiny, whether it be fan displeasure."


The 1981 Minnesota Twins and the 1884 Detroit Wolverines are the only two other teams in big league history to drop from first place to 10 games back in the standings in a two-week span, each doing it in 14 days. But there's a caveat: They were 0-0 at the time, so their designation of being a first-place team when the collapse began might come with an asterisk.


The 1994 Milwaukee Brewers are the only other team since 1930 to endure an in-season free fall from first to a double-digit deficit in 15 days or less.


"There's going to be problems and there's going to be challenges and adversity and losing streaks," Hurdle said. "And along the way, now how you get through those as an organization and as a team is what can define you and actually make you better in the long run."


It isn't getting any easier for the Pirates, who are 0-7 since getting Lee and Ludwick. Next up are games at San Francisco and at the division-leading Brewers, whose 11-1 run has coincided with the Pirates' skid and has been equally responsible for Pittsburgh's historic rapid drop in the standings.


Looking like a shoo-in for NL manager of the year just mere days ago, Hurdle is facing his first true crisis in a season in which it seemed he could do no wrong through almost four months.


In recent days, Hurdle has publicly come off as more jovial than even when things were going well. In his dealings with the media, the sometimes-fiery former Rockies skipper has put on the proverbial happy face and kept a calm, measured demeanor while preaching a don't-panic, stay-the-course approach.


The players appear to be buying in. They emerged from a players-only meeting following Saturday's game talking about how they pledged to stick together.


"We have a group of guys here that's pretty special, and we all kind of have each other's backs," second baseman Neil Walker said. "But it doesn't make it any easier to go through. There's no doubt about that."



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