COMMENTARY | Let's face it: The Pittsburgh Pirates will be in the playoffs come October, either as a division winner or a wild-card participant.
Some people say such statements are a jinx on the team, to never count your chickens before they hatch. But look at the numbers. Sure, the Bucs are only in first place in the National League Central by one game over St. Louis, and could easily find themselves out of that position by the end of this weekend.
But as undesirable as it might be, the Pirates can still make the postseason as one of the two two wild cards, spots currently occupied by division foes St. Louis and Cincinnati. But the fact remains that, as of Sept. 5, the Pirates hold a 10-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks, who find themselves as the first team out of the playoff picture in the National League. For those counting at home, there are only 23 games left in the regular season before October hits, and the Pirates' schedule is full of games against the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres.
Let me reiterate: The Pittsburgh Pirates will be in the playoffs in one form or another. The question then isn't if or when the team will clinch, but rather who fans would (or wouldn't) want to see in the playoffs. The options aren't exactly appealing any way you shake it. If the season ended today, the Pirates would face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional round, given that the winner of the wild-card game would face the top-seeded Atlanta Braves.
That's a scary proposition. The teams with the best earned run averages in Major League Baseball run something like this: Atlanta with a 3.19 ERA, Pittsburgh with a 3.20 ERA and Los Angeles with a 3.23 ERA. There shouldn't be any doubt that pitching wins championships and, along those lines, it would be quite the daunting task for the (sometimes) listless Pirates offense to face Clayton Kershaw, the shoo-in for the National League Cy Young Award and maybe the best pitcher in baseball.
Atlanta might have the best staff earned run average in baseball, but its rotation is decidedly less intimidating than the Dodgers. And in the playoffs, all you need is one or two dominant pitchers to move your team along. Los Angeles easily has that, not to mention a lineup full of marquee names.
Of course, all the talk about Atlanta and Los Angeles is a moot point if the Pirates fail to win the division, which is certainly a good possibility with such a tight race in the Central. If that scenario does unfold, it will be either St. Louis or Cincinnati waiting on the other, teams that Pirates fans are well acquainted with. The Pirates hold a 10-6 record against the Cardinals this year and a 7-6 record against the Reds. Pittsburgh will face both teams down the stretch in the regular season in what's sure to be the most exciting pennant chase in baseball.
It's almost too much to think that the Pirates' entire season could come down to a one-game "play-in" game with a team from their own division. It makes no sense to make predictions in that scenario. Anything can happen in one game of baseball. It would also be an incredibly hard and bitter pill to swallow if, for the first time in 20 years, the Pirates finally make it back to the postseason only to be bounced out by Atlanta.
For the postseason, which team would Pirates fans want to encounter? What team strikes the most fear in the hearts of Buccos faithful?
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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