Results not there, but hopes high

Results not there, but hopes high

Expectations were high going into the season. Maybe not high enough to look forward to the season pushing over into October, but high enough to anticipate visible on-field improvement.

It wouldn't be found in the team's final record, however, as the Pirates followed up a 65-win season with a 67-win one. This came under a new field staff and after a heavy overhaul in management.

It's hard to go past the wins and losses, considering that it's those two columns that ultimately define success. However, management is asking fans to do just that.

"It's hard for people to see because you look at our record and I've heard, 'Here we go again,' 'Nothing's different,' 'It's the same old Pirates,'" manager John Russell said. "But I think if you've been around it, you do see that things are different. You see that it has changed."

So what exactly changed in 2008, even if the results didn't?

Starting in Spring Training, there was a refocused emphasis on fundamentals, and that focus would continue through the six-month season.

There was also a promise of accountability. That accountability was exercised with the release of starter Matt Morris and the demotions of Tom Gorzelanny and Ronny Paulino when none of the three performed up to expectations. And there has been a promise of "no scholarships" moving forward.

This season also saw a movement toward youth, one that ultimately cost the Pirates a chance at having one of the most explosive offenses in recent franchise history. Two July trades took the air out of the '08 offense, while the ultimate payoff will remain debatable for at least a few more years.

"The moves that we've made obviously weren't very popular to the fan base, but they're moves we knew coming in that we were going to have to make," Russell said. "We added some young players. We've added depth."

No one will feign that this season was an on-the-field success. But the hope is that something was learned and something was gained so that this progression of 16 straight losing seasons isn't prolonged much longer. Now, only time will tell.

Record: 67-95, sixth in NL Central

Defining moment: July 31. The Pirates' June 9 win over Arizona -- that featured a classic staredown between Doug Mientkiewicz and Randy Johnson, followed by a benches-clearing fracas -- came in a close second, if for nothing else than that it showed the new grit this team played with under Russell. But ultimately, July 31 defined this season and likely the ones to come. The Jason Bay trade completed an outfield fire sale and infused a whole group of young players into the system. And now, how those young players develop will go far in defining the long-term success of this organization.

4/14, PIT 6, LA 4 -- McLouth shocks Dodgers
Nate McLouth connects with two outs in the top of the ninth to sink the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.
Highlights: Watch
4/27, PIT 5, PHI 1 -- Nady lays out
Xavier Nady covers plenty of ground in making the spectacular diving grab.
Highlights: Watch
5/25, PIT 6, CHC 5 -- Bay wins it late, again
Jason Bay strokes his second consecutive walk-off hit, this one a single in the 13th inning.
Highlights: Watch
6/2, PIT 5, STL 4 -- Michaels delivers in the pinch
Jason Michaels' pinch-hit grand slam knots the game in the seventh inning.
Highlights: Watch
6/20, PIT 1, TOR 0 -- Wilson flashes leather
Jack Wilson makes a terrific sliding stop and a strong throw to end the 11th inning.
Highlights: Watch
7/12, PIT 12, STL 11 -- Michaels' walk-off blast
Jason Michaels' walk-off home run capped off an amazing six-run comeback in the 10th inning.
Highlights: Watch
7/28, PIT 8, COL 4 -- McLouth's river shot
Nate McLouth launches a home run that bounces into the Allegheny River behind the right-field wall.
Highlights: Watch
7/29, PIT 6, COL 4 -- McLouth's grab
Center fielder Nate McLouth lunges for a ball on the warning track and makes a run-saving catch.
Highlights: Watch
8/06, PIT 2, ARI 0 -- Karsten's gem
Newcomer Jeff Karstens comes within five outs of a perfect game against the D-backs in Arizona.
Highlights: Watch
9/17, PIT 15, LA 8 -- Adam LaRoche's monster night
Adam LaRoche hit a solo home run and grand slam, driving in five as the Pirates score a season-high 15 runs.
Highlights: Watch

What went right: For four months, the offense was not just good, it was one of the best in the league. The Pirates touted baseball's most productive outfield until two-thirds of it was traded away. The dynamic of the lineup wouldn't be the same beginning in August, but the offensive dominance was fun while it lasted.

What went wrong: The starting pitching. The fact that the Pirates used 26 different pitchers this season only tells a piece of the story. Gorzelanny and Ian Snell both took steps back, leaving Paul Maholm as the only consistent performer. The lack of pitching depth in the system was exposed, and the fact that there was no competition in Spring Training proved to backfire.

Biggest surprise: During Spring Training, teammates were predicting a successful season for Nate McLouth in 2008, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could have anticipated what exactly what was to come. McLouth earned a starting spot out of Spring Training and became the team's offensive leader. He surprised some with his power output, others with his steady defense in center field. He also experienced playing in his first All-Star Game.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.