The Pittsburgh Pirates have said all the right things regarding their desire to push for the playoffs, but if any of them quietly hoped to ease into the second half of the season, they’re out of luck.
Like it or not, the Pirates face a high-wire act in the final 69 games of 2013, and it’s of their own doing. If they begin to lose ground in the race for the National League Central or the two NL wild-card spots, reminders of their past two late-summer fades will creep into the picture.
Furthermore, the Bucs’ schedule coming out of the all-star break leaves little room for error, with seven combined games against the two teams immediately behind them in the wild-card chase. Pittsburgh (56-37) returns to action Friday for a three-game set against the Reds (53-42), who trail the Pirates by four games in the Central. After that showdown, the Bucs travel to Washington to face the Nationals (48-47), the best of the bunch on the outside of the NL playoff field.
While the Nats aren’t immediately threatening – they’re nine games behind the Pirates – last year’s NL East champs still have enough time and talent to challenge for a playoff spot. Following next week’s four-game series in the nation’s capital, the Pirates have a three-game respite against the league-worst Marlins in Miami to complete the 10-game trip.
The gauntlet culminates back at PNC Park when the division- and NL-leading Cardinals (57-36) invade Pittsburgh for five games in a four-day stretch. The St. Louis series, featuring a “twi-night” doubleheader to make up an April rainout, will provide a preview of the next seven weeks.
The Pirates and Cardinals will have four series against each other from late July through early September, a batch of 14 games that will shape the division race. This is the second year of the new wild-card format, in which the three division winners proceed directly to the best-of-five divisional playoff round while the two runners-up are pitted in a winner-take-all single game.
Last year’s Cardinals survived the wild-card playoff to get within a win of the World Series, but the postseason path is more forgiving for division champions than it used to be.
After 20 losing seasons, any playoff action would be a breakthrough for the Pirates. Even after a 5-7 start to July, Pittsburgh’s odds of making the postseason have crept north of 90 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Acknowledging the Pirates’ advantageous position, there remains much at stake in the near future. How they navigate the next 15 games will determine whether the division title is still in sight, or if a wild-card berth is a more realistic goal.