PITTSBURGH -- In the dusk of the season, Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle couldn't help thinking back to the dawn. As the club was approaching Opening Day, the recurring theme was the harsh first-month schedule it faced. You might remember the incessant talk: an almost non-stop gauntlet of teams coming off winning seasons, many of which had been in the 2011 playoffs. "Right out of the gate: 'The toughest 40 games in baseball.' Then we lose A.J. [Burnett] right out of the chute," Hurdle recalled. "And we don't hit for two months. But that didn't turn out to be the toughest 40, did it?"
Not even close. Hurdle's implication that the last 40 were much tougher was spot-on. Even with Burnett delayed until game No. 14 by his Spring Training bunting mishap, the Pirates navigated the First 40 with a record of 19-21. The Final 40 had the Bucs playing arguably MLB's weakest closing schedule, including 17 games against three of the National League's most unsuccessful teams (Cubs, Astros, Mets). With four games to go, the Pirates are 10-26 in the Final 40. "We found a way to fight through a lot of things," said Hurdle, referring to the First 40 tenacity that fueled midseason contention. "We didn't fight through them all. To be a champion, you've got to fight through everything for six months."