On a chilly and clear autumn night that perfectly complemented important late-season baseball, the gripping division race that thrilled and often tortured Pittsburgh fans officially came to an anticlimactic and disappointing end Wednesday night. St. Louis hitters ambushed Charlie Morton early and took advantage of his wildness later, on their way to suffocating the Pirates 11-1. After the final out, the Cardinals' players and coaches hugged and backslapped their way off the field in muted celebration. A couple Pirates players lingered in the dugout and watched for a few extra seconds, but most quickly retreated to the clubhouse.
For six long and impressive months the Cardinals played the part of the rabbit leading a pack of greyhounds around the track at a breakneck speed. To keep pace, the Pirates put together one of the best seasons in franchise history. In light of all the injuries they overcame, what the Cardinals achieved is special. With all the additions that the Pirates made to their roster after losing so much from last year's team, 96 wins (to date) is a remarkable accomplishment.
For fans that follow and care about the team that comes out on the losing end of a close pennant race, it's difficult to immediately appreciate what transpired over the season. That's especially true for Pirates fans this year. As I wrote Monday, this season just hasn't felt as satisfying a 96-win year should. While victory after victory piled up over the weeks and months, Pirates fans kept one eye on the Cardinals who occasionally wobbled but ultimately never fell from their perch atop the division.
There will be a time when good memories from this year will outstrip the immediate disappointment. Indeed, the weeks ahead may hasten that process a great deal and make the long season a perfectly fitting prelude to a magical October.
But for the moment there is this: The goal this team set for itself was straightforward and they fell a little short. Wining the division was on Clint Hurdle's mind minutes after last season's Wild Card game loss and it established the expectations for the club starting in spring training.
"Back to back years, we pushed through the season and found our way into the playoffs," Hurdle said following the loss to San Francisco. "What reinforces this whole playoff set more than anything to me now is the importance of winning the division."
As he returned to the media conference room with the division now formally out of reach, Hurdle struck exactly the tone you'd expect. There was no reflection on what was lost, nor appreciation for the struggle. Instead, it was on to the next thing.
"Plan A is off the board," Hurdle said. "So our next objective is to show up and win Friday night."
From the outside, one might imagine that some emotional letdown would naturally follow the end of this long chase, but if there is the Pirates manager wasn't letting it show.
"The ultimate goal hasn't changed, to win a world championship," Hurdle said. "We're just going to have go about it in a different method now. I don't think it's going to be difficult at all [getting over this]. I don't think there's any degree of difficulty. It's what's next. It's the ultimate so what, now what? We move on."
The Pirates clubhouse was mostly empty and quiet afterwards, but there weren't any visible signs of exaggerated frustration or anger. The most visceral display of emotion came from Morton, who wore his disappointment in every aspect of his countenance.
"This is a game I come into and I want to win," Morton said. "Folks showed up tonight, everybody's excited and I go out there and I give it up. It's just heartbreaking."
Andrew McCutchen quickly dressed and fulfilled his obligation as a leader and spokesman for his teammates. Echoing the sentiments of his manager, McCutchen shrugged off questions about any lingering frustration.
"You can look at it that way if you feel like being frustrated," McCutchen said. "You can say, dang, if we'd be in any other division we'd be in first place. You could say that. But why dwell on something that's not possible? ... You can't shy away from the fact that we have 96 wins, just the fact that the Cardinals have 100. It makes us kind of look like, I don't know, [a] bottom-of-the-barrel bunch. We've got to be proud that we are at 96 and we can finish up the season at 99. We'll be fine."
Tony Watson repeated the theme of looking forward, saying that what was important now was staying focused on holding home field against the Cubs. However, he admitted it wasn't easy to see the Cardinals clinch in Pittsburgh.
"Obviously it's not really exciting around here right now," Watson said. "It's tough to see them celebrate on our field. We wanted it really bad. We had a really good club and we thought be able to catch them. But they're a good club over there, so we'll tip our cap and hopefully see them again soon."
Over in the Cardinals' clubhouse, the celebration gained more and more steam as the bottles of champagne piled up and Budweiser cans emptied. All season they dealt with the pressure of being the pursued and tonight they were finally able to take their foot off the gas, breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate the fact they never blinked.
"We were real conscious not to focus on anything we couldn't control," Mike Matheny said. "We couldn't control whether they win or lose. We watched. There were times when we'd be disappointed because we'd played good baseball and we wouldn't gain much ground. But all in all, it was something really that got back to our initial idea: Let's just go play the game. Stuff will take care of itself. We'll get a chance to play teams head-to-head, and hopefully we take care of business. Tonight, we did."
Jason Heyward, who's grand slam for all intents and purposes put tonight's game out of reach and put a close to this year's division race, took a moment to pay tribute to the Cubs and Pirates who were on their tail all year and made the National League Central the most competitive and difficult division in baseball in 2015.
"What's today's date? September 30? We got 100 wins," Hayward said. "That's how much we were pushed by them. Very good teams. I think the numbers speak for themselves when they say it's the best division in baseball."