Pirates' focus is still on NL Central title

Pirates' focus is still on NL Central title

The Pirates have driven a stake into the 2015 postseason. But they still have a lot more at stake.

The Pittsburgh Kid, Neil Walker, took the lead Wednesday night with six RBIs as Pittsburgh prolonged a streak quite different from the one that fascinated the nation for two decades. The Bucs earned their third consecutive playoff appearance by beating Colorado, 13-7.

"This is the first step," proclaimed manager Clint Hurdle

The Pirates thus joined the St. Louis Cardinals as the only teams to qualify for each of the last three postseasons -- and they figure to be soon joined in that distinction by the Los Angeles Dodgers. That's your MLB triumvirate of triumph.

"We're still going," Andrew McCutchen said. "We've come a long ways. After 20 years of losing, [just getting in] was kinda cool. Now it's kinda old. I'm sure fans are saying, 'We've been here before, let's do something else. Let's go get it.'"

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But this is only the first step on a long road, itinerary still not mapped out. The Pirates are assured of no worse than a spot in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, but they have a loftier goal in reach: the NL Central title.

The Cardinals' win Wednesday night kept the Pirates four games shy of their Holy Grail, the division crown. However, a loss by the Cubs pushed the North Siders three games behind the Bucs for what, presently, they would still regard as the booby prize for 92-plus wins, home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card Game.

So even as they toasted in celebration of the clincher, the Bucs were not forgetting about the Holy Grail.

"We're in a different place than we were last year, certainly than a couple of years ago," said Walker, who drove in the first five runs and the last run of the clincher. "We know we still have a lot of work in front of us. We still feel like we have the Cardinals in our grasp."

Three games each with the Cubs (this weekend in Chicago) and the Cards (Sept. 28-30 at PNC Park) are included in the Pirates' remaining 10 games.

Low-key celebration shows Bucs mean business

Because the three Central contenders have (by far) the best records in the NL, the Bucs will likely have to fight their way through both the Cards and the Cubs in the postseason:

• If they have to settle for the NL Wild Card Game and win it, they would meet St. Louis in the NL Division Series, just as in 2013.

• If they rally and take the division title, the Pirates would then play the winner of the Wild Card Game in the NLDS. This scenario will likely be a matchup of the Cardinals and Cubs, though the Giants and Nationals still hold mathmatical hope of overtaking Chicago. 

The big difference between those two scenarios, of course, is home-field advantage in the NLDS. It's a significant perk. The Bucs are 5-2 at home and 3-6 on the road against the Cards; against the Cubs, it's 4-6 and 2-4.

By rule, a Wild Card team cannot hold home-field edge in any of the postseason series. So regardless of how deep into October the Wild Card Game winner survives, it will be deferring home-field to a team with a far inferior record.

The potential early playoff matchups are intriguing. The red-hot Cubs, with Jake Arrieta getting the ball, would be a tougher one-game foe in the Wild Card. The Cardinals, with puzzling lefty Jaime Garcia having joined John Lackey and Michael Wacha, would provide the bigger best-of-five challenge.

Thus, the importance of the division title grows. If they can make Arrieta the Redbirds' problem, the Bucs will like their chances in a longer series against either team.

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.