As the pennant races start to heat up in the second half of the season, Big League Stew is there to take a closer look at some of the biggest series down the stretch.
The situation: Fans just getting into legal drinking age (or younger) might not know this, but there used to be a time when mentioning Pittsburgh and Cincinnati as a BIG series wasn't followed with snickers and questions of "really?" The Reds and Pirates met in the NLCS on four different occasions in the 1970s and once again in 1990 for good measure. (The Reds dominated those meetings with Pittsburgh's lone series win coming in 1990.)
After two long decades both teams now rank 1-2 atop the NL Central with the red-hot Reds bringing a 3 1/2-game lead into this weekend's series. While Cincinnati became reacquainted with big late-season series during their 2010 NL Central title season, it's still a novelty in the 'Burgh. You'd have to go all the way back to 1997 to find a post-trading deadline series in which the second-place Pirates faced a first-place team they were chasing. That one came on Sept. 17 as the Pirates split a two-game series with Houston en route to a 79-83 finish that year.
Previously on: Pittsburgh holds a slim 5-4 edge in the season series and took two out of three games at Great American Ballpark in June.What's left: Two series remain after this one: A three-game series in Cincinnati from Sept. 10-12, followed by a three-game set in Pittsburgh the second-to-last series of the season (Sept. 28-30).
For starters: Wandy Rodriguez (7-9, 3.82) and Mat Latos (9-3, 4.17) start the action Friday night, followed by James McDonald (10-5, 3.38) and Mike Leake (4-7, 4.44) on Saturday. A.J. Burnett (13-3, 3.27) and Homer Bailey (9-6, 3.85) are expected to face off in Sunday afternoon's finale.
Cincinnati continues to cruise?: Joey Votto's departure from the Reds lineup on July 16 was supposed to create an opportunity for the Pirates to strike in the NL Central standings, but the rest of Votto's teammates haven't let it work out that way. While the Pirates have gone 11-5 since July 16, the Reds have gone 14-3 in Votto's absence — enough to increase their division lead by a total of 2 1/2 games. Ryan Ludwick has particularly stepped up in the Reds lineup, recording a line of .388/.444/.857 with six homers and 20 RBIs in the 54 plate appearances he's made since July 16.
Can Pirates pitching power through? Pittsburgh had an off-day on Thursday while Cincinnati did not. That could prove to make a big difference as it gave the Pirates ability to start A.J. Burnett on Sunday without deviating from his usual schedule of rest. Burnett is coming off his stellar one-hitter at Wrigley Field on Tuesday and will follow the Pirates' two other best starters — Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald — in the rotation. Breakthrough start McDonald is in particular need of a good start; he's gone 1-2 with a 8.71 ERA in his four starts since the All-Star break.
Whither Brandon Phillips? The Reds were already operating at a deficit this weekend given Votto's injury, Devin Mesoraco's concussion/suspension and Johnny Cueto's turn in the rotation not coming up against the Pirates. They could, however, also be without their second baseman. Phillips strained his left calf on Tuesday and hasn't been seen in the lineup since. His status for the Pirates series remains a question mark.
Brennaman goes bald: Get that razor ready. Friday night's the night for ol' Franchester.