Pirates want to flip NL Wild Card Game script

Pirates want to flip NL Wild Card Game script

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The advent of the Wild Card Game has been great for baseball, general manager Neal Huntington readily admits. It just hasn't been so great for the Pirates.

Pittsburgh hosted each of the National League's last three win-or-go-home postseason openers. After winning the 2013 game -- a memorable triumph over the Reds that literally shook PNC Park as the city celebrated a long-awaited playoff victory -- the Pirates lost the past two years to untouchable aces: Madison Bumgarner and the Giants in 2014 and Jake Arrieta and the Cubs last October.

"We've been that first Wild Card and would have had three consecutive five-game series," Huntington said. "The outcomes may have been very different."

The Bucs would like to avoid the Wild Card Game one way or another. They're aiming to win the NL Central, and some in the organization would like to see a three-game series eventually replace the one-game showdown.

But here is MLB.com's "Fearless Prediction" for the Pirates' 2016 season: They will find themselves, happily or not, hosting the NL Wild Card Game at PNC Park once again. This time, they'll win it.

It's too early to predict anything other than cold weather on Opening Day at PNC Park -- and even that forecast changes by the day. If the Cubs don't live up to the immense hype and the Cardinals finally take a step back, the Bucs could just as easily win the NL Central. Maybe they will.

Or maybe the Cubs prove right the betting odds and preseason projections that seem to heavily favor them. That would leave the Pirates and Cards to battle it out with a top-heavy NL pack that also could include the Giants, Dodgers, D-backs, Mets and Nationals.

If the Bucs do make it to four straight NL Wild Card Games, what might give them an edge? Two words: Gerrit Cole.

Cole showed last year that he belongs in the conversation with the game's best young pitchers. He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting behind Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. He went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and struck out 202 in 208 innings.

Cole's NL Wild Card Game loss brought a surprising end to a stretch in which he had been at his best when the Pirates needed him to be. In a remarkably important and challenging five-start September span against the Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers, Cole went 4-0 with a 2.36 ERA and five Bucs wins.

So how about this: A 2013 NL Division Series Game 5 rematch, Cole vs. Cards ace Adam Wainwright? But this matchup will play out at PNC Park in front of another black-clad crowd, not at Busch Stadium.

If the Pirates can get back into a five-game playoff series, the results -- as Huntington said -- may be very different indeed. Buctober 2016 may last longer than one day.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.