PITTSBURGH -- Disappointed Pirates fans looking forward to 2013 can start with Wandy Rodriguez.The left-hander acquired from Houston days prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline will be in the Bucs rotation from the get-go next season. In the two months since his acquisition, he has quietly -- the only possible way for a member of the muted Pirates -- been one of the best pitchers in the National League. Rodriguez took his roll to the end of his season, hurling six innings of two-run ball on Sunday. In keeping with the team's late-season theme, however, he couldn't find his happy ending. Spoiling the Pirates' 69-0 record in games they've led after eight innings, the Cincinnati Reds mounted a two-run rally in the ninth for a 4-3 victory in front of 32,814 whose Fan Appreciation Day gifts at PNC Park couldn't include a 78th win. Instead, an 82nd loss nailed shut the coffin on the Pirates' 20th consecutive season of under-.500 finishes. "I'm disappointed," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Especially after we were able to get to a certain point in the year where we're talking playoffs. Unfortunately, it all got away from us." If "disappointed" seems too weak of an adjective under the circumstances, bear in mind that attaining a .500 record was never a team goal. It would have been the obvious by-product of the genuine goal, a division title. So for the guys in the clubhouse, the dark day was when they were eliminated from the playoffs, not when they were eliminated from .500. "Both are upsetting," said Andrew McCutchen. "But you have to push forward. We still got to keep fighting and try to finish strong." "You play to win every time," said bench coach Jeff Banister, the longest-suffering man in a Pittsburgh uniform, having been in the organization for all 20 losing seasons. "We set out with the intention of winning the Central, and getting into the postseason. That was our goal; anything short of that is, for us, not attaining a goal." Rodriguez's potential 13th win of the season flew deep into the right-field seats in the ninth inning, on Xavier Paul's leadoff pinch-hit homer off Joel Hanrahan, who had entered with a 3-2 lead to try to post his first save at home since Aug. 8. "I've faced Joel a lot in the past. Unfortunately, never gotten a hit," said Paul, a 2011 Pirates player for 121 games who actually had only one previous at-bat against the Pittsburgh closer. "To be able to come through in the clutch felt great, especially against my old team. Maybe I'll have bragging rights for a little while." When Ryan Ludwick doubled with two away and pinch-runner Denis Phipps scored on a double by Zack Cozart, Hanrahan instead was saddled with his second loss in seven decisions. Referring to closers as "adrenaline junkies," Hurdle raised the possibility of a lack of save opportunities having dulled Hanrahan's edge. The accountable pitcher would have none of that. "I don't know if you can say that; I've been pitching, just in different situations," Hanrahan said. "And it's not like the pressure gets to me in that kind of situation; I had the guy 0-2 [Paul, as well as Ludwick later] and didn't put him away. You can't do that here." "Right there, I was really trying to stay short with my swing and try to get on base," Paul said. "He left that ball up, and I put a good swing on it. I wasn't thinking about hitting a home run, because I don't hit many." The Bucs had been in position to win a second straight game on a McCutchen hit. The day after his walk-off homer, McCutchen had tilted Rodriguez's duel with Cy Young Award-hopeful Johnny Cueto, who was seeking his 20th win, into Rodriguez's favor with a tiebreaking single in the fifth. In the last six weeks, Rodriguez has nearly as many wins as the rest of the staff combined. Since Aug. 18, Rodriguez is 5-1; the other Pirates are 6-27. "I had a very good breaking ball today, and used that and my location," said Rodriguez, who also allowed six hits and a walk, while striking out seven. Asked about anticipating a full season in black and gold, Rodriguez said, "Yeah, we have a great team. I feel very happy to come back next year for this team." "He's found a real good place with us," Hurdle said. "He competes. He's found a real good rhythm to finish off the season." So Rodriguez has dropped quite a calling card. Hurdle was recently moved to call the top two in his projected '13 rotation the best tandem of starters he has had in a decade of managing. "You immediately look at A.J. [Burnett] and Wandy," Hurdle said, "and any rotation I've had, those would be the two of the best I've had to start off the five." Baseball history was made, presumably, in the top of the first when, with one out and rains intensifying, umpiring crew chief Angel Hernandez waved everyone off the field. The grounds crew began to drag tarps into position. Seconds later, not only did the rain stop but the sun peeked through. So the Bucs immediately returned to their positions. Pitch-to-pitch, the rain delay officially clocked four minutes; it is inconceivable that there has ever been a shorter rain delay. It takes longer than four minutes to get a reliever into the game. The teams exchanged pairs of third-inning runs, with Joey Votto's RBI double and Todd Frazier's run-scoring grounder giving the Reds a 2-0 lead in the top and Garrett Jones' two-run homer erasing it in the bottom. Jones' 26th homer of the season was his first at home since Aug. 16, and finally moved him within one of the 45 Brian Giles had hit in PNC Park, the third-highest total in the park's brief history; Jason Bay leads with 61 and Craig Wilson had 47. The Pirates broke the tie when McCutchen's single scored Alex Presley, who had begun the fifth with a leadoff double and advanced to third on Josh Harrison's sacrifice bunt.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.