Nearly three weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates guaranteed themselves of becoming the first major North American pro sports team to endure 17 consecutive losing seasons. Then it got worse.
The Pirates dragged themselves into the final 10 days of the season Friday with 23 losses in 26 games before beating the first-place Dodgers 3-1, a remarkably bad streak even for a team that is redefining the term perennial loser.
No Pirates team had gone through a late-season stretch of losing like this since 1890, when the Pittsburg Alleghenies went 3-35 to conclude a 23-113 season. That team was so bad, it changed not only its nickname but was able to alter its first name, too, when Pittsburgh added its 'h.'
Even by the Pirates' standards of underachievement this has been a dismal, disheartening and gloomy way to end what is likely to be only their third 100-loss season in 55 years. They must win six of their final 10 to avoid it.
"We're just not winning. There's nothing much to say," outfielder Lastings Milledge said. "We come to the park and, I think, we prepare ourselves better than anybody in the big leagues. It's just not there right now."
There's no break the rest of the way, either.
The Dodgers still own the NL's best record and an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot and the NL West while in Pittsburgh. After that, the Pirates play three each against the Cubs, who have won nine of 11 from them, and the Reds, who are 11-4 against them with eight consecutive victories.
Perhaps the only upside for a team renowned for its stinginess with the dollar _ its current roster is making about $20 million _ is that nobody is making a late-season salary drive.
Team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington are using words such as aggravating, frustrating and disappointing to describe what's happening. Manager John Russell says, simply, "It's no fun. Nobody likes to lose. Nobody here, the staff or the players, enjoys this one bit."
At least there haven't been many eyewitnesses. A just-concluded three-game series against the Reds drew only about 12,000 fans, although the official attendance that includes season-ticket holders was much higher.
All this losing, and apathy, stands out in a town where the Steelers won the Super Bowl and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup earlier this year. Those teams are likely to keep playing before sold-out houses for years to come.
The Pirates insist all the prospects they've acquired by dealing Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson, Adam LaRoche, Nyjer Morgan, John Grabow, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett since July 2008 will yield teams that will contend for years. So far, there's nothing to suggest that's ready to happen.
After dealing Bay, Nady and Marte last year, the Pirates lost 41 of their final 60. This season, they are 13-37 since the July 31 deadline for trading without waivers.
"It's not acceptable, we don't want to accept losing," Russell said. "We've made it very clear all year: Guys are getting opportunities and we've got some good talent coming and we'll search the free-agent market. The guys who were given opportunities, some have taken advantage of it and some of them aren't quite ready for it."
The Pirates have had only two breakthrough position players, neither of whom was added in a trade. Rookie center fielder Andrew McCutchen (.278, 12 homers, 52 RBIs) was drafted by their previous regime, and rookie outfielder-first baseman Garrett Jones (.302, 20 HRs, 42 RBIs) signed as a minor league free agent.
Many of the players added in the trades have disappointed, not coming close to matching the numbers of the players for whom they were dealt. No Bays in this bunch.
Third baseman Andy LaRoche (.249, nine HRs, 52 RBIs) and outfielder Brandon Moss (.242, seven HRs, 39 RBIs) have shown little power. Reliever Craig Hansen pitched in only five games before it was discovered he has a nerve problem that threatens his career. Jeff Karstens (3-5, 5.45 ERA) couldn't keep his spot in the rotation. Charlie Morton is 4-9 since moving into the rotation, Kevin Hart is 1-7 after going 3-1 with the Cubs.
Their best pickup has been right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (11-10, 3.92 ERA), a good pitcher on a remarkably bad team, but he won't pitch again this season because he's thrown 176 2-3 innings.
Milledge hasn't disappointed since being acquired from the Nationals and despite management's unhappiness with what's happening on the field, he sees hope for the future. The Pirates might be young and undermanned, but he is certain they haven't quit.
"I think for one thing, we don't want to go through this (again)," he said. "Losing is never good. At the same time, knowing how to deal with failure is a big thing, just knowing how to back yourself off the wall. I think a lot of guys in here know how to come off the wall, and I don't think a lot of people can say that. I think we're taking it head on."