PITTSBURGH -- The thought of extending one of sports' most dubious streaks was an afterthought on July 19, when, after a one-run win over the Reds, the Pirates stood in first place, seven games above .500.
This year, it seemed, was poised to be different.
In many ways, it still has been. Attendance went way up. The club's road and Interleague records improved dramatically. Certain individuals took large leaps forward in their development.
The end result, though, is all too familiar. Regardless of the outcome of the final 13 games of the 2011 season, this year will end just as the previous 18 did. Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Cardinals went down as defeat No. 82, officially ending any hope the Pirates had of a late run toward .500.
The club's streak of losing seasons -- a record in the four North American professional sports -- has extended to 19. This loss came at home, too, in front of a crowd of only 12,520. It was hardly reminiscent of the atmosphere that enveloped the team earlier this summer at PNC Park.
"I think one thing we've learned is there is much work in front of us," manager Clint Hurdle said. "These guys have tasted [success]. We've got to improve our how-to for us to become a championship organization and for us to get to the point where we don't talk about the consecutive losing seasons anymore."
For a while, the .500 mark seemed entirely attainable. There was even a pennant race to enjoy. But after that day in July, the cracks began to show. Injuries and a tough stretch in the schedule started the spiral. A missed call by umpire Jerry Meals didn't help.
The Pirates have gone 16-38 in their past 54 games. They've won just four series and have been swept in five. From first place, the club has dropped to fourth. There's a chance of dropping one rung further, too, before season's end.
"The baseball that we played for the first four months of the season, we know what we're capable of," second baseman Neil Walker said. "We overcame a lot of adversity. We know that feeling of playing good baseball against good teams and winning close games, and we also know the other side of it."
The contrast in crowd size aside, the final game of this nine-game homestand was a microcosm of what went wrong so often this year. The starting pitching was strong, as was the defense. Together, though, the two couldn't lift a lagging offense.
Returning after nine days of rest, Charlie Morton limited the Cardinals to three runs in seven innings. He regained his efficiency and found his breaking ball to be effective in handcuffing left-handed batters.
A pair of doubles pushed across one St. Louis run in the first. Yadier Molina drove home the other two in the fourth, which began with a walk and hit batter. Morton worked around a leadoff walk in the fifth and a leadoff triple in the sixth to keep the Cardinals from extending their lead.
He was aided a few times by his defense, too. Pedro Alvarez made a terrific scoop and throw to end the sixth and leave a runner at third. Andrew McCutchen then chased down a deep fly ball off Albert Pujols' bat to strand another two runners in the seventh.
"I think that [out]," Hurdle said, "was another step forward for him to build off of."
The loss dropped Morton's season record below .500 for the first time. Now at 9-10, he has just two wins since the start of July. Not to be lost in the results, though, is that the right-hander continues to add on to what is already a career high in innings pitched at this level.
With two starts likely remaining, that total sits at 160 2/3.
"The workload, knowing the responsibilities, the expectations, those are all things I need to go through, and I need to face. I've been given that opportunity," Morton said. "To get to where I want to be, I have to be able to go out there and take the ball and get the innings."
The Pirates' offense did him no favors. It finished 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position. The club advanced two runners into scoring position with no outs in the second and couldn't score. A leadoff hit in the fourth was erased by a subsequent double play. The Bucs then came up empty in two chances with a runner on third in the seventh.
Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson allowed RBI doubles to Alex Presley, who finished the day with two extra-base hits, and Derrek Lee. Lee's two-out knock pulled the Pirates to within one of the Cardinals in the sixth.
The club didn't tally a hit off three St. Louis relievers, who combined to pitch the final 2 1/3 innings.
"We got into situations in the last two games where we had people in situations to make plays or do things and score runs, and we didn't," Hurdle said. "They did. That's why they're in a pennant chase right now, and we're not."
The 82 losses aside, the Pirates still have some benchmarks within reach. The club has an outside shot at finishing above .500 on the road, though that would take an 8-2 record going through Los Angeles, Phoenix and Milwaukee.
Perhaps more realistic would be aiming to finish above fifth place in the division for the first time since 2004. That was also the last season in which the Pirates won more than 68 games. With 67 already this year, Pittsburgh can still match the '04 win total of 72.
The steps may be small. But they're steps nonetheless.
"I can't congratulate the Pirates enough," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. "They really compete. Clint and his staff have done a really good job of getting them to play baseball for nine innings. They certainly have played us tough. And everybody else."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.