The Pittsburgh Pirates have battled hard to get themselves in position for a late-season playoff chase. If the first series after the all-star break is any indication, it sure gets late early around here.
Over the weekend in Cincinnati, the Pirates and Reds completed a three-game series more like the postseason than anything Pittsburgh has experienced in two decades. Each of the three contests hinged on one or two at-bats, with Cincy earning the edge in two of them.
On Friday, all-star second baseman Brandon Phillips came through for the Reds, smoking a Justin Wilson slider for a three-run double to put the home side up 5-0 in the fifth inning. Although the Pirates rallied back to make it 5-3 on three solo homers, Phillips’ hit essentially decided the result.
Saturday’s big moment arrived in the top of the ninth, with the Bucs on the precipice of overcoming a 4-0 first-inning deficit. Following a leadoff infield single by Andrew McCutchen and a throwing error from Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, all Pittsburgh needed was a productive out to tie the game at 5. Instead, Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman burned through Russell Martin, Michael McKenry and Jordy Mercer with 100-mph heat.
The bottom of the eighth was most critical to Sunday’s tilt, a 3-2 Pirates victory that kept the third-place Reds at arm’s length in the National League Central race. Pittsburgh had gone ahead in the seventh via RBI singles from Mercer and Jose Tabata, but the Reds loaded the bases with nobody out against the normally stout Mark Melancon.
Perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto was up next, but Melancon induced the NL’s best hitter to ground into a slick 3-6-1 double play, trading two outs for a run. Melancon retired Phillips in the next breath to avoid what would’ve been a heartbreaking loss for the Pirates.
The weekend at Great American Ball Park illustrated the airtight margins that often decide critical baseball games. The Pirates and Reds are firmly entrenched in the NL’s twin wild-card spots with 66 games to go, so another Pittsburgh-Cincinnati matchup could very well decide the league’s fourth participant in the divisional series round.
These two franchises have squared off in four postseasons, but they have much to do before setting up a fifth playoff date. It’s possible one of them could overtake St. Louis for the NL Central title, or that one (or both) could slump out of contention altogether. We’ll obviously have a much better idea by the time the Pirates and Reds next meet on Sept. 20, the start of two late-season series between the two combatants.
Until then, memories of this past weekend will have to suffice. Cincy took this round, putting the season series between the Ohio River rivals at 7-6 Pittsburgh. The run total in those 13 games? Reds 46, Bucs 45.
Two ballclubs, evenly matched, going head to head. Until the playoffs, that’s about as good as it gets.