Reds vs. Pirates set up for dramatic ending
Nothing will convince manager Clint Hurdle that his Pittsburgh Pirates are out of the NL Central race until the mathematics no longer work in their favor.
Though the scenario is more likely this weekend's three-game set in Cincinnati will wind up determining the site of Tuesday's wild-card game between the Pirates and Reds, Hurdle still has his mind set on a possible division title heading into Friday's series opener.
Pittsburgh (91-68) trails first-place St. Louis by three games, and it will need to sweep Cincinnati and have the Cardinals drop all three to the last-place Chicago Cubs just to create a one-game playoff for the Central crown.
"We're still focused on the opportunity to win the division," Hurdle told the team's official website after the Pirates' 4-2 loss to the Cubs on Wednesday. "If it turns out (winning the Central no longer is possible), we want to fight and take that (wild card) game back home."
Pittsburgh, which locked up its first postseason berth since 1992 on Monday, would need to take two of three in this set to host that one-game playoff against the Reds (90-69), who were eliminated from the division race after falling 1-0 to the New York Mets on Wednesday.
A tie in the standings would give home-field advantage to Cincinnati based on head-to-head play, as the teams enter this series 8-8 against each other on the season.
Andrew McCutchen ranks near the top of the NL with a .318 average, but he's 3 for 24 over his last seven games and hitless in 14 straight at-bats against the Reds.
"We'll try to win a couple, and go from there," McCutchen said. "I'm happy just to have the opportunity (to be in the playoffs). I remember at the beginning of the season, no one gave us a chance, and now look where we are."
Cincinnati is heading to the postseason for the third time in four years, but it dropped the final two of a three-game series against the Mets after winning six of seven.
Manager Dusty Baker is focused on getting the wild-card contest at home, though the Reds have dropped four of six at Great American Ball Park.
"This team seems to take the hard road most of the time," Baker said. "It is very important to have the home-field advantage, but it's not impossible no matter where you play."
Baker's club had a difficult time solving A.J. Burnett on Saturday, and he'll be on the mound for the series opener.
Burnett (9-11, 3.39 ERA) beat the Reds as he struck out a season-best 12 while allowing two runs over seven innings in a 4-2 victory.
"I was locked in," Burnett said. "It was probably the best command of that hook I've had in a long time. I had a put-away pitch, and it's a lot different when you have those."
He's had 28 strikeouts in 18 2-3 innings while going 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in three outings against Cincinnati this season. The right-hander, though, is 2-5 with a 5.36 ERA in eight career starts in Cincinnati, and he has a 6.68 ERA in his last six outings on the road.
He'll again be opposed by Homer Bailey, who gave up four runs - two earned - and walked four in 5 2-3 innings while suffering his first loss in nearly two months Saturday.
Bailey (11-11, 3.40) went 6-0 with a 2.60 ERA over his previous nine outings overall and was 2-1 with a 1.91 ERA in his last four versus the Pirates, including a no-hitter Sept. 28, 2012.
Reds rookie Billy Hamilton, hitting .389 since making his debut Sept. 3, was successful in his first 13 stolen-base attempts before being caught Wednesday. He went 3 for 6 with two stolen bases against Pittsburgh in Sunday's 11-3 win.