COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their training camp this past weekend and, for the first time in a very long time, it wasn't front-page news. That's because another team located right next door is making more than enough noise to drown out football fans that think baseball season ends at the end of July.
You can't necessarily blame those people, as the Pittsburgh Pirates haven't been in any kind of contention for two decades. That changed this year, as some have called this the biggest week of baseball in Pittsburgh in more than two decades. The National League's two best teams square off on the city's North Shore in a late-July five-game series that has enormous implications for the postseason.
All sorts of adjectives have been flying around to describe this series, and for good reason. These are two of the very best teams in baseball facing off with more than 100 games already in the books. The St. Louis Cardinals have the best winning percentage in baseball, while the Pirates rank third. The similarities don't stop there. The Pirates (3.09) have the best staff earned run average in baseball, while the Cardinals (3.36) have the fourth-best staff.
However, offensive statistics tell a very different tale. The Cardinals (.274) have the second-highest team batting average in baseball, while the Pirates (.243) are ranked 24th. Even worse, the Cardinals (.338) have the highest batting average with runners in scoring position, while the Pirates (.222) rank dead last. Something will have to give this week, and the team that comes out on top will take the first step toward winning the division.
These five games very well could represent the starting point for a sprint to the finish between the two teams, a race that will leave one team as division champions and the other as a likely wild card.
But do the next five games represent the most important series in Pittsburgh since the 1992 National League Championship Series loss to the Atlanta Braves?
It's hard to argue that it isn't, given that the 12-year-old park hasn't seen much winning baseball. There was the All-Star game at PNC Park in 2006, a wonderful spectacle to be sure, but a show that meant absolutely nothing to the team and its die-hard fans. There were the "Freak Show" Pirates of 1997, a team that competed for the division title in the last weeks of the season before falling to the Houston Astros.
Beyond those examples, it's hard to pinpoint another moment that meant so much to the team and its future. There's been so much meaningless baseball in this city in the past two decades that it doesn't take much for anything to become the best of what's around. This certainly seems like the most important series in the park's history, but it might not stay that way for long.
Including this upcoming series, the Pirates and Cardinals face each other 14 times before the end of the season, a total that represents nearly a quarter of the remaining games for the Pirates. Indeed, they face off again at PNC Park at the end of August in a series that, if both teams remain constant, could be one of best series in all of baseball this year. Beyond that, the two teams play in St. Louis in both August and September. That's not to mention the six games left between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati at the end of the season.
That's perhaps the only good thing about having a baseball team that hasn't accomplished anything in the past two decades. Every single series from this point out will be the most important the team has played in a long time. Expect PNC Park to be packed to the gills these last two months, starting tonight with the mega-series against the Cardinals. It's a series that could see the Pirates in first place in the NL Central by the end of Thursday.
Fans will be loud, proud and ecstatic; the stadium will be rocking. Fans will be living and dying with every game and every series. Can you blame them?
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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