There was an undeniable buzz in the old ballpark last summer. It was the third week in July, nearly two-thirds of the season was complete and a new frontrunner had emerged in the National League's Central Division.
The Pirates had just blanked Cincinnati in PNC Park, had compiled a 51-44 record and was alone atop the standings.
Too good to be true? Unfortunately so.
T-L Photo/RICH GIBSON
PIRATES’ 2011 All-Star Game pitchers, from left, Joel Hanrahan and Kevin Correia were joined by Bucs’ pitching coach and West Liberty product Ray Searage at last week’s annual Pirates’ Winter Caravan at Fort Steuben Mall.
In fact, the Black & Gold embarked on a disappointing freefall culminating in a fourth place finish in the NL Central.
Pittsburgh went 21-46 over its final 67 games to finish 72-90. Many of the good vibes had disappeared by the time October arrived leaving fans uncertain what the future would hold.
Nothing like the Bucs' annual Winter Caravan to renew hopes and inject a feel-good attitude among tri-state area fans.
Last week at Steubenville's Fort Steuben Mall, Bucs' pitching coach Ray Searage, a West Liberty State product, arrived with two of the team's high-profile members of his staff.
""We know 162 games is a grind and that's how you have to approach it - both as a player of coach," Searage advised.
"Of course, the season didn't end the way we would have liked, but for a long stretch, we proved we could go out and compete with the 'big boys.'"
The team's final eight weeks, notwithstanding, Searage envisions the Pirates taking another step forward in 2012.
"We're still basically a young team and some of (those players) learned a few lessons," I'm confident," Searage suggested. "I think it's realistic to expect improvement (in 2012)."
In addition to starter Kevin Correia who missed the final six weeks of 2011 with a sore shoulder, ace closer Joel Hanrahan was in Steubenville for a meet and greet session.
The Pirates' starting rotation has been enhanced with the recent acquisition of experienced southpaw Eric Bedard.
"Bringing in Eric is an obvious upgrade," Searage reported. "I'm looking forward to working with him. No doubt, he becomes a valuable member of our staff."
Correia, meanwhile, feels considerably better following off-season rest. "I got off to a nice start last season before experiencing the setback with my shoulder," he indicated. "I should be at full strength (by spring training) which is encouraging."
Hanrahan was a lights-out performer out of the bullpen, recording 40 saves to go with a sparkling 1.83 earned run average.
"That was my best professional season," Hanrahan confirmed.
"I think the big thing for our club is the face we're a year older and our guys realize what is takes to be successful over the long haul."
The Pirates also added infielder Casey McGehee, a productive hitter with Milwaukee. Also aboard is veteran catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes.
Searage suggests 2012 has potential to be a game-changer for the historic franchise.
"Last season, our guys had an opportunity to taste what (first place) feels like fairly late in the season. Were they happy how it all ended? Of course not. But let's see where it takes us going forward."
BUCS broadcaster Tim Neverett was also part of the caravan stop. "For me, everything goes back to that long night in Atlanta that ended just before two in the morning," he stated.
"No one who watched or listened to that game will ever forget how it ended. I think it definitely deflated the team."
Neverett is referring to the marathon extra inning encounter of July 27 which ended at 1:50 a.m. when home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Atlanta's Julio Lugo safe on a disputed play which gave the Braves a 4-3 win...
Gibson may be reached at email@example.com