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Final Weekend of MLB Season Carries Intrigue for National League Central

One Team Could Clinch the Division While Two More Will Fight for Home-Field Advantage

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals have secured a playoff spot in MLB's postseason, but even the most inexperienced player on the Redbirds' roster will tell you the job is not yet done.

These Cardinals have their eyes set on capturing the National League Central title and avoiding the shenanigans that go along with a one-and-done wild-card game.

Unfortunately, for St. Louis, so do the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

With all three NL Central teams earning the right to play in October, and two of those teams -- the Reds and Pirates -- set to face each other for the last series of the year, the final stretch of the 2013 regular season is shaping up to be an ulcer-inducing experience, indeed.

The Pirates and Reds find themselves separated by just one game in the Central entering play on September 25 -- the Pirates just two games behind the Cardinals, and the Reds only three -- a fact that carries more than one element of intrigue into the final weekend.

First and foremost, the Cardinals know better than anyone how fast a division lead can evaporate. Their 2011 heroics serve as both a reminder of the team's core resiliency and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a team loses focus in September. As long as the Reds and Pirates are within striking distance, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny must make sure his team continues to push, especially with home-field advantage on the line as the Cardinals chase the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the NL.

Second, the idea that the Reds and Pirates are doomed to fall short of the Cardinals simply because they're destined to beat up on each other in that final series may be premature. Such a belief eliminates the possibility of either team sweeping the series finale. If there's one thing the 2013 Reds and Pirates have taught us over the last five-plus months of baseball, it's that both lineups and pitching staffs are capable of dominating a three-game set.

And, finally, the Pirates and Reds -- if they do, in fact, lose the division title -- find themselves in yet another interesting position. After playing a three-game series to finish the season, they then play one more game, the NL wild-card game, to determine the fate of their playoff hopes. Call it a modified four-game series, but the first three will determine home-field advantage for one team.

That home-field advantage could prove crucial. With a 49-27 home record, the Reds' advantage when playing at Great American Ball Park is impressive. But it still falls short of the Bucs' 50 wins at PNC Park. Only the Atlanta Braves have more wins at home (53) in the National League.

With the head-to-head season series tied at 8-8 between the Pirates and Reds, the final three games could very likely determine the location of the NL wild-card game.

Then again, they could also determine the NL Central division title.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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