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By Chad Carlson
This past year was certainly a memorable one for Pirates’ fans.  We saw the birth of a new regime under first-year manager Clint Hurdle, and the continued emergence of young players in their first exposure to Major League Baseball.  Entering the 2011 season, no one knew what to expect from such a young team with a new manager, and there were certainly highs and lows during one of the most notable seasons in recent Pittsburgh baseball memory.

Upon announcement of his hiring, Hurdle was immediately effective in inspiring and motivating both players and fans.  Still entranced in a record-setting losing streak for North American sports, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ community and supporters needed something to give them a reason to be relevant to fans again.  Clint Hurdle served that purpose from the onset.  His awareness of the team’s (city’s) situation immediately drew in everyone, from casual fans to daily followers of the club.  Of course, there were some who wondered if he would follow those managers before him, acting as no more than mindless puppets for the higher executives in the ownership hierarchy.

The fact is, Hurdle knew this was going to be a challenge…to bring a team and an organization from rags to riches, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight.  Still, despite hearing these admittances by the manager, we, as fans, felt inspired that this team was FINALLY headed in the right direction on the field.

As is the case with prior offseasons in the mostr recent past, the Bucs didn’t make a lot of moves prior to Spring Training in 2011, but those they did make grabbed Pittsburgh headlines. 

The acquisitions of Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz seemed like a perfect fit for the club at the time.  After all, a number of the Pirates’ projected starting position players, including Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata, were young and inexperienced at the Major League level, and could certainly have benefited from the expertise of seasoned veterans.  Insert Overbay and Diaz, two guys who have succeeded at the top level for years, and guide the younger players along, both on and off the field.  Overbay was announced as the team’s starting first baseman, while Diaz was inserted to platoon right field along with Garrett Jones.

Prior to Spring Training, this was the projected 2011 starting lineup:
1.  CF Andrew McCutchen
2.  LF Jose Tabata
3.  2B Neil Walker
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez
5. 1B Lyle Overbay
6. RF Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz
7. C Chris Snyder
8. SS Ronny Cedeno
9. Pitcher’s Spot

On paper, this looked like a fairly decent lineup, all things considered.  Still, though, there were many questions left to be answered.  Would McCutchen continue to bud as an emerging star? Would Tabata and Walker carry over from their 2010 campaigns? Would Alvarez be the power leader in the middle of the lineup?  Would Diaz and Overbay be the leaders they were brought on board to be? Was Snyder the right choice as starting catcher over Ryan Doumit?

The starting pitching was the major concern, though, for fans.  Kevin Correia was brought on board to lead the staff, while the team was expecting strong rebound years from Ross Ohlendorf and Paul Maholm.  Here was the 2011 projected starting pitching rotation:
Paul Maholm
Kevin Correia
Ross Ohlendorf
James McDonald
Charlie Morton

Wow, how things changed across the board.  As we know, Maholm had a terrible season, Ohlendorf was on the DL the majority of the season, replaced by Jeff Karstens, who had one of the more improbably productive seasons in recent memory.  James McDonald had his ups and downs, while Morton, after an incredible first half of the year, tapered off down the stretch and eventually landed on the DL to end the season.

The 2011 season was an extremely rare one…not in the fact that it resulted in yet another losing season, but that it had perhaps the most drama for a team with only 72 wins in the history of the baseball.  Looking at the season from a statistical standpoint, it apears as though 2011 was just another losing season for the Pirates, one that ended with a 72-90 record, extending their North American sport all-time leading losing record to 19 seasons. 

But for us fans that followed the team through his incredible roller coaster ride of a season, it proved that the flame of passion for baseball can still be ignited in Pittsburgh.  With young players like McCutchen, Tabata, and Walker, along with new acquisitions heading into this year, and as improbable as winning may seem, there will be a relatively brighter glimmer of hope shining on PNC Park when the Bucs take the field in April 2012

And…

As Always…

Let’s Go Bucs!