- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Clint Hurdle’s optimism has breathed life into the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. The manager’s combination of tenacity and affability have been a welcome change at a place where pessimism has reigned for nearly two decades.

Yet not even Hurdle could end The Streak.

At least, not yet.

The Pirates fell to 67-82 with a 3-2 loss to St. Louis on Wednesday, assuring the club of a 19th straight losing season, extending a North American professional sports league streak of futility.

It’s an ignominious cloud the team tried valiantly to escape. Pittsburgh managed to climb seven games over .500 in late July and even spent a few tantalizing days atop the NL Central.

Then the pitching staff slipped. Then went the bats, even with the addition of veterans Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline. And then a 10-game losing streak that started shortly after a controversial 19-inning loss to Atlanta in which the Pirates were on the wrong side of an admittedly blown call by umpire Jerry Meals.

Hurdle doesn’t do excuses, and isn’t ready to put the season in perspective just yet. Still, he’s well aware The Streak’s continuation means his reclamation project remains in the early stages.

“I think one thing we’ve learned is there is much work in front of us,” Hurdle said. “These guys have tasted (success). We’ve got to improve our how-to for us to become a championship organization and for us to get to the point where we don’t talk about the consecutive losing seasons anymore.”

What went wrong? How about a little of everything?

The starting staff which flourished early in the season started to break down. Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and Paul Maholm all hit significant bumps in the road, with Correia and Maholm eventually ending up on the disabled list. The Pirates have allowed 292 runs since the All-Star break, the most in the National League.

Lee and Ludwick were supposed to provide some pop after the team became buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline, but Lee spent three weeks on the DL after breaking his hand his first week in town and Ludwick has homered just once in 28 games. All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen’s average dipped into the .230 range after the All-Star break as he struggled at times to produce while hitting in the middle of the lineup instead of at the top.

It’s led to a variety of tough losses and blowouts. The Pirates are 5-10 in one-run games since the break and have allowed at least 10 runs seven times since July 29 after only doing it twice over the season’s first 103 games.

“Any time you go through a really rough spell it’s hard to swallow,” said pitcher Jeff Karstens, whose ERA has risen from 2.28 on July 20 to 3.45. “Where we were sitting at after the All-Star break is where we want to be at. It was just really bad timing for us to have a 10-game losing streak and Milwaukee to get hot.”

Hurdle has tried to remain upbeat. So have his players, who point out the Pirates already have 10 more wins than they collected during a miserable 2010 and still have two more weeks to add to the total.

“The baseball we’re playing now isn’t the baseball we played in the first four months of the season,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “We’ll learn from it, though. We’ll be stronger next year. We have a young team and we’ll be better prepared to go from start to finish for six months.”

The energy within the clubhouse hasn’t waned much even as the team sagged. Rookie third baseman Josh Harrison, who has spent the year bouncing between the Pirates and Triple-A Indianapolis is proof.

“I still feel the vibe,” he said. “We haven’t been getting the outcome that we like, but as far as coming to the clubhouse, the field, I still feel a good vibe. Guys are pulling for each other. Clint’s out there, high-energy like he is and he’s got that confidence in us.”

So, apparently, does the fanbase.

The team is averaging 24,034 fans a game at PNC Park with one homestand remaining, an increase of over 4,000 fans a game from a year ago. The Pirates have also hosted the most sellouts since the stadium’s inaugural season in 2001, and truly electrified the city with six memorable games in June.

Three weeks apart, Pittsburgh played host to the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox, perennial playoff teams with tremendous traveling fan bases. The Pirates won two of three in each series, sold out four of the games, and played amid as close to a playoff atmosphere as PNC has seen in its 11 seasons.

Besides being active at the deadline, the Pirates were also aggressive during the MLB Draft, shelling out $13 million to sign top overall pick pitcher Gerrit Cole and high school outfielder Josh Bell. General manager Neal Huntington agreed to an extension on Sunday that will keep him on the job through 2014, as did promising outfielder Jose Tabata.

Huntington plans to oversee the end of The Streak. So does Hurdle.

They’ll just have to wait until next year, though the players aren’t ready to start talking about 2012, when The Streak could turn 20.

“There’s a lot to be proved before the season is said and done,” Karstens said. “Yeah, we know we’re not really playing for the playoffs now … but it’s all about playing spoiler now.

“You play 162 games for a reason.”

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