Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates begin a three-game series today against the Reds in Cincinnati that will determine the host of the wild-card game.
The Reds' Billy Hamilton steals second base as Pirates' Neil Walker tries to apply the tag Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. The teams begin a season-ending series tonight in Cincinnati.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHICAGO -- They're in, but there is work to be done.
Three scenarios on two different days in two different cities remain in play for the beginning of the Pirates' first playoff experience since 1992. They clinched at least a wild-card spot, but with a good weekend -- and some outside help -- they can improve their position.
"This is the way our season has played out," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've continued to battle, to go play. We get the result we want, we kind of put that one aside and go get another one. We don't get the result we want, we wash it off and we get ready for the next game."
The Pirates trail the St. Louis Cardinals by three games in the National League Central Division with three games to play. The only way the Pirates can win the division, and avoid the possibility of their season ending in a one-game wild-card playoff, is by sweeping the Reds this weekend in Cincinnati in a series that starts today at Great American Ball Park, and hoping the Chicago Cubs sweep the Cardinals in St. Louis. That would pull the Pirates and Cardinals into a tie for the division title and force an extra regular-season game, a one-game tiebreaker, to determine the division champion.
Because the Pirates have a better head-to-head record (10-9) against the Cardinals this season, that 163rd game would be Monday at PNC Park. The winner of that game wins the division and advances to the National League Division Series, which starts Thursday. The loser plays the Reds in a wild-card game Tuesday at home.
"I think that our goals haven't changed," Hurdle said. "That's to win the division."
Hurdle has experience with a 163rd game. His Colorado Rockies capped a monster run at the end of the 2007 season by defeating the San Diego Padres, 9-8, in 13 innings to earn a wild-card playoff berth. Trevor Hoffman blew the save in a three-run 13th, and Jamey Carroll hit a sacrifice fly to score Matt Holliday and win the game.
The Cardinals' magic number is one, meaning their next win or the Pirates' next loss eliminates the Pirates from contention for the division title.
The Pirates enter tonight's game with a one-game lead against the Reds. If they win the series, taking two of three games or sweeping, they will finish ahead of the Reds and host the wild-card game Tuesday.
If the Reds win the series, they host the wild-card game. A sweep of the Pirates means they pass the Pirates in the standings. If the Reds take two of three games, they will tie the Pirates but have a better head-to-head record against them (10-9).
The teams are built for their respective ballparks. PNC Park's deep fences in left-center field plays to the Pirates' strength, their pitching staff. The Pirates are 50-31 at home. The advantage increases if the Pirates send left-hander Francisco Liriano to the mound, as expected. He has a 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts this season.
Great American Ball Park's short fences benefit the powerful Reds lineup featuring left-handed sluggers Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, an MVP candidate. The Reds are 49-28 at home.
"We just got to go there and play the way we play," Liriano said of the series this weekend. "We're not trying to do too much, we're not trying to change anything. We just got to go out there and play, play hard, take it game by game, inning by inning."
The wild-card games began in 2012, when the field of teams that make the playoffs expanded from eight to 10. The Baltimore Orioles last year found a way to beat Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish and advance to the ALDS. An incorrect application of the infield fly rule marred the Cardinals-Atlanta Braves wild-card game, causing a delay when fans threw debris on the field, and the game was finished under protest with the Cardinals winning, 6-3, in Atlanta.