Biggest regular-season baseball in Pirates history

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Ladies and gentlemen, boy and girls: Get ready for the biggest 10 days of regular-season baseball in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It does not get better than this if you are a baseball fan. Every pitch counts, every swing matters. The pressure is ramped up to its highest level.

Earlier this month, there was talk about those games being the most important for the Pirates since 1990. That landmark has been eclipsed. Based on the closeness of the race and the recent history of the franchise, there's never been a bigger regular-season stretch for the Pirates.

Few of the Pirates have ever played in games of such magnitude. Their competition, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, are much more postseason-tested. The Pirates, of course, are not, although a handful of their players have been to the postseason with other teams. But for most, the Pirates have never faced anything like this.

The scene is this: National League Central Division play heads into its penultimate weekend with St. Louis in first place at 89-64, followed by the Pirates, 88-65, and Cincinnati, 87-66. All three teams have nine games remaining and any one of them is capable of winning the division title. The Cardinals are the favorites by virtue of the better record and by the fact the Pirates and Reds play each other six times in the final 10 days.

Damping down the pressure a bit is the fact that in all likelihood, all three teams will make the postseason. Only a total collapse by the Pirates or Reds and near-perfect baseball by Washington would change the current landscape. But first place is to be cherished. It brings with it a bye to the division playoff series while the two losers engage in a best-of-one wild-card playoff.

For the Pirates, it begins tonight with a three-game series against the Reds, their final regular-season games at PNC Park. These are the pitching matchups: Friday -- Matt Latos vs. Francisco Liriano; Saturday -- Homer Bailey vs. A.J. Burnett; Sunday -- Bronson Arroyo vs. Jeff Locke.

While this is going on, the Cardinals are playing three in Milwaukee. On Monday, the Pirates go to Chicago for three with the Cubs; the Reds go home for three with the Mets and the Cardinals are at home for three with Washington.

After an off-day Thursday, the final weekend has the Pirates in Cincinnati for three and the Cardinals at home with the Cubs for three.

All three teams are 6-4 in their past 10 games.

So what do the Pirates have to do to win?

A duplication of something approaching the offensive onslaught they laid on the San Diego Padres yesterday -- 10 runs, 14 hits, six walks, two homers, four doubles. That's not likely against the Reds pitching staff, but the outpouring of hits was a positive, particularly the excellent days by Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, both of whom had been badly slumping. Alvarez homered and drove two runs, Walker homered, drove in three and had four hits.

More than likely, it will come down to pitching. The Pirates have won Liriano's past two starts. He pitched six innings both games and allowed three runs and nine hits while walking six. In his seven starts before those two, the results almost defy belief: In four he had an ERA of 0.29 and in three his ERA was 20.25.

Latos was knocked around by Milwaukee in his most recent start, 6 2/3 innings, seven hits, five runs. But in his previous seven starts his ERA was 2.06 and the Reds were 5-2.

PNC Park will be rocking like it never rocked before for these three games.



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