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Pirates’ season ends, optimism should endure

Hoards+of+Pirates+Fans+crossed+the+Roberto+Clemente+Bridge+to+get+to+PNC+Park.+%3Cbr%3E+Theo+Schwarz+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer
Hoards of Pirates Fans crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge to get to PNC Park. <br> Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Hoards of Pirates Fans crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge to get to PNC Park.
Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Hoards of Pirates Fans crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge to get to PNC Park.
Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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Before you look at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season-ending loss to the Cubs Wednesday night, you have to look at who they lost first.

Put the early playoff exit aside — before losing 4-0 at home in the NL Wild Card game, the Bucs had mountains upon mountains of obstacles to overcome. And they did just that. The 98 wins the Pirates racked up this season wasn’t just a signifier of overcoming odds — it showed the last two seasons weren’t flukes. The Pirates have shifted from lovable underdog to perennial contender.

This was a team that saw starting catcher Russell Martin bolt in free agency to Toronto and key starting rotation member Edinson Volquez head midwest to Kansas City.

The team lost the valuable and versatile Josh Harrison to a thumb injury in July, and the infielder missed more than six weeks. It lost defensive wiz shortstop Jordy Mercer to a knee injury that an errant slide by Milwaukee Brewers’ Carlos Gomez caused. It lost wily veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett, who started the year hot but cooled off dramatically, to right elbow inflammation on July 31 and didn’t see “Batman” back on the mound until September.

And, of course, they lost Jung Ho Kang, the beloved rookie infielder from Korea who burst onto the scene with a scorching first campaign in the big leagues. His season ended in September when a slide by Cubs’ outfielder Chris Coghlan tore Kang’s MCL.

Kang’s injury proved the biggest blow to the Pirates’ season, as the team lost a valuable protector for Andrew McCutchen — but all of the aforementioned medical casualties piled on.

A flaky team would have succumbed. As teams like the 2011 Boston Red Sox and 2007 New York Mets have proven, no team is immune to a late-season collapse. The Pirates, with all these holes, either filled them or found ways around them — something that good franchises, like their rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, do constantly.

Under the direction of Neal Huntington, general manager, the Pirates provided answers to all of these questions. They did an admirable job of replacing the immense production of Martin by trading for Yankees’ catcher Francisco Cervelli in the offseason. Cervelli hit .296 and cemented himself as a fan favorite with his energy and passion — and did so on the cheap. Burnett came back to the Steel City after an unsuccessful season in Philadelphia and pitched like a number one starter for the first three months of the year, while being paid like an end-of-the-rotation pitcher.

They replaced Burnett’s stellar first half production with a shockingly good turn by trade deadline acquisition J.A. Happ, who went 7-2 with 1.85 ERA and 69 strikeouts. Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria helped stabilize a bullpen that had some inconsistencies outside of studs in Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon.

The Pirates were dealt a bad hand by running into the unstoppable and unhittable buzzsaw of a pitcher that is Jake Arrieta in a win-or-go-home game. Fans shouldn’t let that dampen how great of a season it was in Pittsburgh.

Thanks to their dynamic outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, as well as a young ace in Gerrit Cole, the Pirates were as fun to watch as any team in baseball. Combine that with their impressive resilience, and baseball in the ’Burgh will continue to be as vibrant as it’s been these past three years.

The Bucs might not have corralled a World Series ring this year, but that achievement looks like it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.”

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Pirates’ season ends, optimism should endure