Pirates relish opportunity to face off with Cardinals

Pirates relish opportunity to face off with Cardinals

PITTSBURGH -- Baseball history is replete with dramatic pennant-race surges. It started with the 1914 Boston Braves, storming from being 12 games behind on July 25 to a World Series title. The 1978 Yankees trailed Boston by 14 games on July 19 and ran down the Red Sox to take the American League East in the Bucky Dent playoff game. And so on -- and the Pirates could be writing a new chapter.

The Bucs awoke on June 30 nine games behind St. Louis in a National League Central race in which they had not made any headway for weeks. When they take an All-Star break on July 12, that could be down to a fraction.

The Pirates amplified their vibe -- five straight, 10 of 12, 19 of 26, 32 of 44 -- with Wednesday's comeback 5-2 win over the Padres. The Cardinals kept pace with a pulsating 6-5 ninth-inning comeback victory in Wrigley Field, so they hit town in Thursday's wee hours for the opener of a sizzling four-game series in PNC Park with a 4 1/2-game edge.

Not that the blinders-wearing Buccos are aware of that.

"Five-and-a-half?" Neil Walker responded, a few minutes after participating in the Bucs' eighth-inning winning rally against San Diego, when asked whether he knew how far back his team was. "As ballplayers, we have to live day to day, moment to moment. I know [the Cardinals] is what everyone wants to talk about. You guys [the media] are going to try to suck stuff on them out of us. But every game is of equal importance in here."

"We can't treat these games any differently," Andrew McCutchen said. "Our day to day approach can't change, just because they're the best team in baseball and we're second-best. Playing baseball any day is a blessing, whatever the situation."

Yet this is a very big situation, a perfect storm of scheduling to lower the first-half curtain.

"It's an opportunity the schedule has presented us with," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "If we were 20 games out, it wouldn't be an opportunity. But it has been brought to my attention that we're four-and-a-half games out.

"I'd heard a couple of times that this thing was over, wrapped up, 'Forget about it, play out the season.' That's kinda changed. We get to play them four times. It doesn't make sense to bang the drums any louder. It's just a fun happening at this time for me, right before the break. It will be a fun weekend here, for fans and everybody else."

These two best teams in the league are lapping the NL by various measures: Victories, pitching prominence, records at home -- where the Bucs took two-of-three from St. Louis in May and now gear up for a possible repeat of the July 2013 stand in which they took the first four of a five-game set with St. Louis.

For a change, the Bucs can stack their rotation against that of the Cardinals. Jeff Locke, All-Stars Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett, and Francisco Liriano (29-16, 2.79 ERA) will match up with Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, John Lackey (22-12, 2.79) and an as-yet undetermined starter for Sunday.

If you think those rotation numbers are comparable, regard the regular-season head-to-head history between these teams since the start of the 2012 season: The Bucs have won 20 of 44 games while outscoring the Cardinals 174-172.

Still, Hurdle would not yet elevate this rivalry into the Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants class for one basic reason: The Cardinals boast the upper hand -- which the Pirates will now try to slap away.

"They raised the bar so high, and we're trying to catch them," Hurdle said. "The Cardinals have been there a long time, and we're hunting them. They have a good team. And I love playing good teams. You tip your hat to them -- then you go out and try to beat them."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.