It was all a dream.
Though 2013-15 was, at least, a partial-reality.
A 94-68 Pirates team broke through a glass shack that housed 20-years of futility, spraying shards of excitement, enthrallment and winning baseball back to a city starved to see it.
There were key players that made it all happen. A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano pieced together solid campaigns of sub-4.00 ERA seasons. Russell Martin had a rabbit’s foot of a catcher’s glove. Starling Marte and late addition Marlon Byrd tore the cover off the ball.
Still, it was Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez’s team. They were the captains. They were the linchpins.
While Cole, Marte and Jordy Mercer also came in home-grown, it was the three-headed monster for which the team was built around, and the sputtering dud that two were brought into just four-years prior (three for Alvarez), that was about to become a long-range ballistic missile ready to strike the heart of the NL Central.
Oh yes, 2013 is where it all began, and it was glorious.
“Of course, you think about our success,” said Neil Walker, when he made his second trip back to PNC Park, then with the New York Mets, reminiscing of what he and his captains built. “Bringing winning baseball back to Pittsburgh, growing up here, watching the Pirates, obviously, that was a great moment, and it was a big moment for the team.”
The second baseman hit for .251 that year, clubbing 16 home runs, knocking in 53 RBIs in 133 games. Though injuries flirted with the Pine-Richland native, Walker remained a consistent cog when the team needed him the most.
McCutchen’s .317 average and .508 slugging %, coupled with a golden glove, earned the center fielder an MVP award that year. He was incendiary. White-hot. 21 home runs, 84 RBIs and 27 stolen bases padded the stats of a household baseball name that called the banks of the Monongahela home.
Insert the third piece. Alvarez caught the most guff of the three while in Pittsburgh, yet his 2013 campaign was a work of power hitting art. The third sacker was crowned a silver slugger with a career-best 36 home runs and 100 RBIs. He’d hit 131 blasts in his six years with the Pirates.
With those three, a deep playoff run was merely a handful of signals and a couple platforms away from a final destination.
And for once, it was truly palpable that those three would stay in the organization to finish what they started.
For three years, the winning product was a tangible evidence. Moving pieces came in, some went out, but the three spokes that kept the wheels moving remained in-tact. Had another-worldly Madison Bumgarner not gotten in the way a year later, the 2014 Pirates may have found the cheese in the playoff maze. Had Jake Arietta been dragged off the United Airlines flight to Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, 2015, maybe that cheese gets eaten.
As great as they were, the band was never meant to be. They broke up in 2016. Walker went to the Mets, Alvarez to the Orioles. Cutch was left to pick up the pieces, going from a team that went 94-68 to 87-75 to 98-64 to a 78-83 team with no October identity, where it remains to this day.
“This game is filled with coincidences,” said Alvarez, who spoke after the Pirates’ 5-3 win over Baltimore in the 2017 home season finale Wednesday.
The coincidence pertinent is the fact that Alvarez played his first game at PNC Park in the uniform of the visiting team, while McCutchen may very well have played his last in the home colors, officially breaking up what was supposed to be a power-force cultivated around a three-player foundation.
“I’m not thinking about it. I don’t care at the moment,” uttered a stern yet content McCutchen Wednesday night.
Pirates fans should feel hoodwinked. The fanbase only got one Wild Card win out of a product that could have carried so much more weight, and given more years than what was allotted.
But those three years should also be remembered as the ones you can’t forget. Three years where you may never see baseball as good again in Pittsburgh. Attribute that to three players, who like a band at its peak, broke apart into solo careers that never really amounted to the same.
As the season officially closes this weekend—and the fears of McCutchen leaving become a spiraling reality as each day gets colder—living in the past is as close to tasting the postseason as one is going to get in this city (unless you have cable and can stomach the pain of watching other people’s teams success.)
And it was Alvarez who gave all of Pirates nation the two words it may be familiar with the most.
“Next chapter,” the slugger indicated.
Turn the page, Pittsburgh. This chapter is officially finished.