Each major accomplishment on the list of goals for the Pittsburgh Pirates has been checked off while on the road this season, and the team has a chance to cross off another in Cincinnati this weekend. After clinching a playoff berth in Chicago on Monday, the opportunity to seize home field in the NL Wild Card game is there for the taking.
Entering Friday's series opener against the Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates have a one-game lead to buffer their hopes of hosting a playoff game in PNC Park on Oct. 1.
MLB released its breakdown of the tiebreakers for the upcoming postseason earlier this month. Knowing that the two-team tiebreaker for determining home-field advantage begins with head-to-head winning percentages, the winner of this three-game set will secure home field. The Pirates and the Reds are 8-8 in their season series this year.
The Bucs haven't been eliminated from contention in the NL Central divisional race yet, but the Chicago Cubs would have to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals—in St. Louis—while the Pirates did the same in Cincinnati. Even then, there would be a need for a tiebreak game to be played Monday, Sept. 30 to determine the division champion.
But all of those are uncertainties. What is known is that the pitching matchups in this showdown will be incredible to follow.
In Game 1, A.J. Burnett (9-11, 3.39 ERA) will face off against Homer Bailey (11-11, 3.40). This is a rematch of the Pirates' 4-2 win Sept. 21. Burnett struck out a season-high 12 in seven innings as Bailey was handed the loss in his 5.2 innings of work. In eight career starts against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park, Bailey is 3-3 and is noticeably more dominant in the pitcher-friendly PNC Park.
Game 2 features one of the hottest pitchers on the Pirates staff, Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.14), against a former Pirate, Bronson Arroyo (14-11, 3.60). In his 15 starts since the beginning of July, Morton has only failed to get through five innings once. Arroyo is coming off a win over the Pirates in his last outing in which he lasted five innings while surrendering five hits and three earned runs.
The finale of the series on Sunday pits rookie Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22) up against Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.82) in a matchup that could be the climax of the weekend. Cole has been dominant over his last three starts, going 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA and 25 Ks. Cueto, who has battled back from an injury, has been solid in his two starts since returning, going 1-0 with one earned run allowed in his 12 innings pitched.
While pitching will take center stage—especially in a park that surrenders as many home runs as Great American Ball Park does—there are undoubtedly subplots.
Will there be any message sent after Andrew McCutchen was plunked by Sam LeCure on Sept. 20? LeCure hadn't hit anyone this season prior to McCutchen in the eighth inning last Friday.
Pirates reliever Stolmy Pimentel hurled a wild pitch behind Brandon Phillips on Sept. 22 that got Dusty Baker's attention, as per Tom Singer of MLB.com.
"It didn't look accidental," Baker said. "The pitch to Brandon looked intentional, but we got some life out of it and scored some more runs after that."
With tensions running high, a burgeoning rivalry at hand and positioning for playoff baseball at stake, the atmosphere is sure to be intense all weekend.
First pitch for Game 1 of the series is set for 7:10 p.m. EDT from Great American Ball Park. Game 2 gets under way at 1:05 p.m. EDT, and Game 3 will begin at 1:10 p.m. EDT.