After taking three-of-four from the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates have won seven of their last 10 games – all against National League Central teams, no less – and find themselves only 2.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the lead in the division.
Unfortunately, there is no time to look back, since the Chicago Cubs, who are four games behind the Pirates for the first NL Wild Card spot, come to PNC Park on Tuesday to start a four-game series.
It could be the biggest series so far for the Pirates this year, and one they cannot afford to lose. At worst, the Cubs sweep the Pirates and tie them in the standings; at best, the Pirates earn a sweep and go eight up on the Cubs, virtually eliminating the Cubs’ chances at winning the division and possibly passing the Pirates.
But more importantly for the Pirates, winning this series could possibly propel them to the top of the division standings. The Cardinals start a three-game set at home against the Milwaukee Brewers – whom the Pirates just took three-of-four from – and the Brewers could be a big help for the Pirates.
How important is this series for the Pirates’ divisional chances?
There are 20 different possible record combinations the Cardinals and Pirates could have by the end of Thursday, which range from the Pirates actually leading the NL Central to the Pirates being eight behind.
If the Pirates sweep the Cubs, they will be no less than two games behind the Cardinals by the end of Thursday. If the Pirates and Brewers both pick up sweeps, the Pirates will be a game up on the Cardinals.
The chances that both the Pirates and Brewers both end up with sweeps is certainly possible, but not something to bet on. The Cardinals are slumping to a 4-9 September record, but they are still the best team in baseball record-wise and face the Brewers in St. Louis. Plus, the Cubs are one of the hottest teams in baseball, having won seven-of-10.
There are two common denominators that would have the Pirates passing, tying, or at least gaining ground on the Cardinals: The Cardinals doing poorly against the Brewers in their own building, and the Pirates taking the series against the Cubs.
Since the Pirates cannot control what will happen in the Brewers-Cardinals series, their focus, as cliché as it sounds, is to take care of business against Chicago, both to keep the divisional race tight and to keep a comfortable lead over the Cubs. Anything the Brewers can do is bonus.
But it will not come easy. The Pirates are 3-3 at home against the Cubs in 2015, and will face top starters Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. They do, however, have experience playing in and winning meaningful September baseball games, while the current group of Cubs does not, and the Pirates need to take advantage of any edge they may give them.
Chances will still be there to catch St. Louis in the standings, particularly when they come to PNC Park later in the month. But first, the Pirates need to show their moxie and never-say-die attitude against one of the best and hottest teams in baseball to prove they are worthy of knocking the Cardinals off their perch at the top of the standings.