Thursday, August 2, 2012

Playoffs in sight, Pirates prep for pivotal series - The Tribune-Democrat

PITTSBURGH â€" Todd Frazier might try to downplay the significance of the Cincinnati Reds’ next series, but his family sure isn’t.

As much as Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle attempts to shield his players from putting too much emphasis on the importance of the upcoming three games in Cincinnati, many Pirates fans are calling it their team’s biggest series in 15 years.

It’s only the first week of August, but the stakes will be high when the Reds and Pirates meet today, Saturday and Sunday â€" particularly for Pittsburgh, which hasn’t made the playoffs in parts of three decades.

The Reds (64-41) and Pirates (60-44) have two of the three best records in the National League. Cincinnati leads the NL Central by 31/2 games over Pittsburgh. But the Pirates are alive and well in the NL wild card race.

“I’ve got some family in town, and they’re trying to hype (the series) up to be more than it is,” said Frazier, a Cincinnati infielder who has homered in three of his past five games. “(The Pirates) are getting close (in the standings). It’s exciting.

“It’s still early, but it counts, especially when it’s the team right behind you.”

The Pirates are 39-20 since May 25, having gone 15-3-1 in the past 19 series. For the past two months, any time they inched up another game above .500, they attained a new high-water mark for the first time since the end of the 1992 season.

That happens to not only signify Pittsburgh’s previous playoff appearance, it also was the last time the franchise posted a winning record. A North American professional sports record of 19 consecutive losing seasons, of course, followed. To put that streak in perspective, National League All-Star Bryce Harper was born two days after the Pirates were eliminated in the 1992 NLCS.

But with Hurdle leading the way, there’s an end in sight for that streak, and â€" who knows â€" maybe even the postseason one, as well. The Pirates need only to go 22-36 the rest of the way to secure that winning year.

But Pittsburgh is after much more. And the Pirates, who have won six of their last eight games, can take a big step this weekend.

“We don’t worry about them. We’re just worrying about ourselves. We can’t afford to lose focus against anybody. We know what we’re trying to do here with this ballclub,” Cincinnati outfielder Ryan Ludwick said. “We can’t worry about those other teams. We just have to worry about ourselves.”

Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker isn’t so sure. He, too, is confident in his club, but acknowledges Pittsburgh’s presence in the standings, as well.

“Everyone,” he said, “in our division is winning.”

Including his own. The Reds will enter the weekend, having won nine of the last 10 games, and three in a row.

“We’re going to play the first place team. That’s what’s at stake,” Hurdle said. “We’re looking forward to going into Cincinnati and playing some baseball. Last time in there was an exciting series and I don’t anticipate anything different. They have a very, very good ballclub.”

In an indication of just how big the series is, both teams took advantage of circumstance to make subtle adjustments for it. An off day Thursday allowed the Pirates to bump ace A.J. Burnett up, so that he can pitch the series finale Sunday. Burnett (13-3, 3.27 ERA) is coming off a one-hit shutout Tuesday in Chicago. And Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto pitched into the eighth inning of the Reds’ 9-4 win over San Diego on Thursday, meaning top relievers Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall will be rested.

The Pirates have won five of nine meetings with the Reds this season, taking two of three June 5-7 in Cincinnati â€" the last time the teams played. The Pirates won the finale of that series, 5-4, with a 10th-inning run off Chapman, who â€" at that point of the season â€" had yet to allow a run.

“These matchups, they seem to be more significant. They are because of the point and time of the season,” Hurdle said. “But, it’s not a measuring stick. There are enough circumstances and instances through baseball history that every time there’s a measuring stick, you look what happens a month later. That measuring stick didn’t measure up so well.”

Pittsburgh has won 11 of its past 15 but lost two games in the standings over that span because Cincinnati has played so well. What’s more striking is the Pirates’ stretch began a day after Reds first baseman and 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto went on the disabled list with a torn meniscus in his left knee. That was supposed to mean trouble for Cincinnati.

So much for that. The Reds â€" who expect Votto back soon, but not this weekend â€" have gone 14-3 since.

Hot or not, the Reds will face a Pirates team that has built momentum since spring training. Hurdle has the troops focused, and this is clearly their best season since 1997 â€" the only year among the past 19 in which Pittsburgh made a realistic run at a .500 record or a playoff berth. They finished 79-83 and in second place, five games behind Houston.

This year could be different. After all, only the Reds, Nationals, Yankees and Rangers entered Thursday’s action with a better record than Pittsburgh.

“They’ve been playing great,” Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce said. “But I believe we’re the better team.”

Cincinnati’s baseball fans aren’t as success-starved as Pittsburgh’s, but the Reds have had only one winning season since 2000 and just one playoff berth since 1995. So, don’t discount this season’s importance to Cincinnati, either.

“We’re ready to roll. Bring it on,” Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan said. “It’s exciting. Obviously, they’re playing some good baseball, but I have confidence in this team to keep rolling.”

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