Another late-season swoon lets The Streak live


Another late-season swoon lets The Streak live

PITTSBURGH (AP) This time, the Pittsburgh Pirates never saw it coming.

Not in June, when their slumbering offense erupted behind the bats of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Not in July when they moved into a tie for first place in the National League Central while turning an obscure movie reference into a mild cultural phenomenon.

Not even in August, when a 19-inning victory over St. Louis served as a bit of karmic justice after that fateful night in Atlanta in 2011 when a botched safe call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals seemed to turn a once-promising season into just another 90-loss campaign to stack next to all the rest.

Nope, this time there was no moment when things went awry. Instead the Pirates unraveled slowly and steadily over the final seven weeks, somehow turning a 16-game cushion over the .500 mark in early August into a 79-83 finish and a record 20th straight losing season.

The Streak lives on. Again.

``I understand we're under a pretty big microscope and everybody wants to try and figure out what happened,'' reliever Jason Grilli said. ``Well, it's basically in the beginning we played good. The second half we didn't. End of story.''

One that's become all too familiar for baseball's most beleaguered franchise. Only this time it felt different. The Pirates vowed they'd learned their lessons after their freefall over the last two months of the 2011 season. They printed t-shirts with the words ``finish'' splashed across the front. They signed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to a lucrative contract extension and traded for A.J. Burnett to give the pitching staff the ace it desperately needed.

Led by Burnett's fierce competitiveness, the Pirates survived an April and May in which the offense all but disappeared then took off in June when McCutchen developed into an MVP candidate and Alvarez became the slugger management envisioned when Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft.

The team even adopted a catchphrase and a hand symbol - ``Zoltan'' - from the movie ``Dude, Where's My Car?'' that led to a cottage industry of t-shirts and had everyone from politicians to elderly fans flashing ``the Z.''

By the final week of the season, the ``Z'' had been replaced by ``L'' after ``L.''

McCutchen cooled off. Burnett struggled at times. Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, acquired at the trade deadline to give the offense some pop, fizzled. Starter James McDonald's brilliant first half vanished into a miserable post-All Star break funk that had him in the bullpen by September. Second baseman Neil Walker's balky back robbed the lineup of perhaps its steadiest performer.

Taken at face value, the Pirates' best season in 20 years would be seen as a sign of progress. This is the same club that was a major league worst 57-105 two years ago.

Yet after flirting with heights not seen since Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium two decades ago, Walker's aftertaste of ``the Collapse 2'' will linger well into the offseason.

``At the end of the day we've got to find ways to improve over the course of six months,'' said Walker, a Pittsburgh native. ``From personnel, coaching, the front office, everybody has to when the tough times come, get the most out of it.''

If the Pirates want to break through, they don't really have a choice. There appears to be no major front office shakeup in the offing after team president Frank Coonelly pledged general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle will return next spring.

Getting rid of the organization's most successful manager since Jim Leyland makes little sense, though Hurdle knows his team needs to learn how to develop the mental toughness required to survive 162 games. The Pirates have gotten good at handling the first 110 or so under his watch. It's those last 50 that need work.

``I believe we are headed in the right direction, and no, we're not happy with the finish at all,'' he said. ``I just know there's more to do. There's unfinished business in front of us.''

Though Hurdle insists Pittsburgh's ``street cred'' is improving the Pirates are unlikely to make a major roster overhaul in the offseason. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are locks for the rotation. It's likely closer Joel Hanrahan and his 37 saves will be back. The only real positional concerns are the corner outfield spots - where four players including highly touted Starling Marte are in the mix - and catcher.

Odds are the team that takes the field on April Fool's Day to open the 2013 season against the Cubs will look an awful lot like the one that slumped toward the dugout after a season-ending 4-0 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon.

That's not necessarily a bad thing said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, who endured a September collapse of his own with the Braves last fall. Rather than blow things up, the Braves let their young nucleus develop and ended up making the playoffs a year later.

``You give your people a chance to work and hopefully the core is there and hopefully they learn from what they've gone through and they take a step forward,'' Gonzalez said.

The Pirates believe they took two forward in 2012, only to take one major step back in the final month. The numbers bear out the optimism. A team that couldn't hit a lick in April and May finished with 172 homers, fourth-best in the National League. Burnett won the most games by a Pittsburgh right-hander in over 20 years. Alvarez's 30 home runs were the second-most by a third baseman in team history.

Taken in the context of a full season, McCutchen believes that the Pirates showed progress no matter how bad things got during their September swoon.

``We're definitely a stronger team,'' McCutchen said. ``We showed we were stronger through a definite period of time we just weren't able to hold the lead that we had. It's something that's a work in progress ... but every year is hard to take when you don't end up where you want to be.''


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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, April 21, five days before the 2018 NFL draft.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins and NBC Sports Washington

Should the Redskins pursue Dez Bryant? This topic was one like a meteor, very hot for a short period of time before it quickly faded out. It started to heat up as soon as the Cowboys cut Dez (about a month too late) and when it was reported that he wanted to play against Dallas twice a year it really picked up steam. But then people started to actually think and figured out that signing Bryant didn’t make much sense for the Redskins. Add to that the reports that the Redskins had no interest and would not look into signing Dez in the future and the Redskins fans quickly lost enthusiasm for the topic.

Seven-round Redskins mock draft—I think that most Redskins fans would be happy with this mock. Well, I’ll say some Redskins fans, most is a pretty strong word in this case. 

Is the draft pool deep enough for the Redskins to trade back? There is plenty of talk about the Redskins trading down in the first round to recoup the third-round pick they gave up in the Alex Smith trade. But they need to be careful. Many consider the draft to be top heavy and they may lose their chance to pick up an impact player if they trade back too far. The question then becomes one of quality vs. quantity. 

Three questions as offseason workouts get underway—There will be plenty more questions that we can ask about this team. But we don’t really know what to ask before the draft, particularly when it comes to the defensive line and running back. One the personnel settle into place we will know what we don’t know. 

Tweet of the week

On Chris Cooley’s thought that the Redskins might try to trade back and get Da’Ron Payne in the draft and the use the assets obtained to move up to get Derrius Guice. 

This is related to the questions about trading back. On paper it looks like a good idea, assuming the Redskins want Payne. We’re pretty sure they would like to have Guice but we haven’t heard as much about the Alabama defensive lineman. 

I had many reply that Guice won’t be there in the second round. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, but you just don’t know. There was zero chance that Jonathan Allen would be there at No. 17 last year, right? 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS.


Days until:

—OTAs start (5/22) 31
—Training camp starts (7/26) 96
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 141

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Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Alex Ovechkin said the Caps would return to Washington with a tied series. The Caps captain is a man of his word as the Caps won both Game 3 and Game 4 to even up the series at two games apiece.

John Tortorella had no answers after seeing his Columbus Blue Jackets fall in Game 4, but he will have to figure things out quickly as the series shifts back to Washington for a pivotal Game 5.

The Caps return home with two straight wins and all the momentum. There's just one problem: No one seemingly can win at home.

What: Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, Round 1, Game 5

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 3:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC.

Live Stream: You can watch Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 on NBC Sports' live stream page.


The Capitals take on the Blue Jackets in Game 5 on Saturday, April 21 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Washington. The series is tied 2-2.


Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC. Coverage kicks off on NBC Sports Washington with Capitals FaceOff at 2:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 2:30 p.m. Tune back to NBC Sports Washington after the game for Caps Extra and Caps Overtime at 6:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

2:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
2:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
3:00 p.m. — Capitals vs. Blue Jackets on NBC
5:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
6:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime


Capitals-Blue Jackets Game 5 is available to stream live here through the NBC Sports live stream page.


Here are the Caps' projected lines:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly- Lars Eller - Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana -  Jay Beagle - Alex Chiasson

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby with Philipp Grubauer as backup.

Scratches: Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky (upper-body), Shane Gerisch, Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek


Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.