A case when first might not be best

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The conventional wisdom is that the best way for the Pirates to end the season is in first place in the NL Central Division. First place, of course, is better than second or third and with it comes the chance to open in a multi-game series as opposed to playing in the sudden-death wild-card playoff.

And maybe not.

If the Pirates win their division, as matters currently stand, they'd open the postseason at Los Angeles, which has the second-best record in the league. The Atlanta Braves, with the best record, would play the wild-card winner.

There's no team in MLB better suited for the postseason than the Dodgers, who have a pitching rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco. For the season, those four are first, fourth, 13th and 15th in the National League in ERA. In the second half, they are second (Kershaw), third (Nolasco), fourth (Greinke) and 21st.

Because of their monster lead in the NL West, the Dodgers could have their rotation aligned the way they want it and rested for the division playoffs. They'd be a formidable challenge for any team and particularly the playoff-inexperienced Pirates.

If the Pirates finish second and with it home field for the wild-card playoff, they have a chance to use Francisco Liriano at PNC Park, where he is 8-1 in nine starts with a 1.91 ERA and a .185 BAA.

If Liriano can get them past the wild-card game, the Pirates would open at Atlanta, also a strong team but not looking as challenging as the Dodgers. The Braves have one pitcher in the top 20 in ERA in the National League in the second half -- Julio Teheran, who is 12th.

This is no suggestion that the Pirates should attempt to finish second. Or that finishing second is better. The Pirates should attempt to win as many games as they can and take it from there. But finishing first, and with it the probability of facing the Dodgers, has its drawbacks.

• • •

On to other topic following the Pirates' 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs last night at PNC Park, which dropped them one game behind St. Louis, which beat Seattle in extra innings:

• Since his return from the disabled list Sept. 4 -- after a surprisingly shortened rehab assignment -- Jason Grilli has not been the same pitcher he was in the first half, when he was arguably the best closer in the National League. His ineffectiveness last night -- a two-run homer to Anthony Rizzo in the seventh inning -- cost the Pirates the game. In four relief appearances since coming off the DL, Grilli has pitched three innings and allowed four earned run and six hits. Time is running out on his bid to regain his closer's role, although that wasn't needed. What was needed -- and may or may not still be there -- is Grilli adding some needed depth to the back end of the bullpen.

• After a terrific August -- .305 BA, .821 OPS -- Neil Walker is off to a slow September. He was hitless last night to drop his September average to .163 (7-for-43). Walker gave the crowd -- at home and at the stadium -- a charge with a long fly ball to center that ended the game.

• Since the All-Star Game, Andrew McCutchen is first in the league in batting (.370), on-base percentage (.457) and triples (4). He's second in OPS (1.066), third in slugging (.608), fourth in runs (33) fifth in walks (31), eighth in stolen bases (8) and 10th in home runs (9) and RBIs (30). That is an impressive MVP resume.

• After four straight wins, the Pirates were due for a loss so, hopefully, the proverbial morning-after bridge jumping can be skipped today. Same with Charlie Morton's average start.



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