(Reuters) - The Pittsburgh Pirates are no longer the "laughing stock of baseball" and can hold their heads high after their first postseason appearance in two decades ended in defeat to St. Louis in Wednesday's National League Division Series clincher.
The Pirates ended a painful run of 20 successive losing seasons by posting a 94-68 record in 2013, claiming a wild card berth for their first postseason in 21 years.
They beat the Cincinnati Reds in a one-off wild card playoff to qualify for the NLDS against St. Louis.
The curtain came down on their exhilarating, 'Cinderella run' with a 6-1 defeat in St. Louis that gave the Cardinals a 3-2 triumph in the best-of-five NLDS.
"It's not the way we wanted it to end. I guess everyone can't have a happy ending," said Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a leading contender for National League MVP honors.
"It's one of those stepping stones for you. You have to take it in a positive manner.
"We're not the laughing stock of baseball anymore. When we show up, they know they're going to have competition ahead of them. We're not that weak team anymore."
Pittsburgh's rookie starter Gerrit Cole, who dazzled the Cardinals with his sizzling fastball and sharp breaking ball in a dominant Game Two victory, powered through the Cardinals order with just one costly hiccup - a hanging breaking pitch that David Freese crushed for a two-run homer in the second inning.
"I didn't make many mistakes all day," said the 23-year-old Cole. "I made one. But that's postseason baseball. It takes one pitch that can either make or break your season. That's kind of the way it goes."
Cole pitched five innings before giving way to a pinch-hitter. He gave up those two runs supplied by Freese and three hits in total with one walk and five strikeouts.
"I thought he pitched a very professional game," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He stepped up again tonight."
St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said the Pirates were deserving of praise.
"Our hats off to the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have absolutely earned our respect and the respect of all of baseball," Matheny said.
"How they play the game. A relentless style, a very athletic team, fast, strong, great pitching. They've got it all. This was a very tough series."
Hurdle said the series was a great experience for his team and memorable for the intensity displayed in both ballparks.
"We were able to take a huge step forward this year," said Hurdle. "Restoring the pride and the passion in the Pittsburgh Pirates."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Peter Rutherford)