Bucs not caught up in hype for series vs. Cards

Bucs not caught up in hype for series vs. Cards

Bucs not caught up in hype for series vs. Cards
PITTSBURGH -- All attempts to convince the Pirates that their upcoming series against the Cardinals -- one that begins at 7:05 pm ET at PNC Park on Friday -- is worth a hint of extra hype was met with full-force resistance.

If they believe otherwise, they won't come clean. If there's pressure, it's not evident. Actually, it's become frustratingly dry hearing the same lines -- ones explicitly taken from the mouth of their manager -- spit out over and over and over. The variation is laughably limited.

Prompted into admitting that there's some additional anticipation surrounding St. Louis' visit, no one budged.

"We'll be prepared for Friday and not look past Friday," right-hander Jeff Karstens said. "It's one game at a time, like we've always talked about."

Still, it can at least be a defining series in an already improbable season, right?

"We don't look forward to stuff like that," said closer Joel Hanrahan. "Our goal has been the same goal -- go out there and win the series. We don't worry about who we're playing."

Sure, but in a tight division race, don't these games inherently carry some added significance?

"I think we treat each game equally," pitcher Charlie Morton answered. "It's not like the Reds weren't a good team."

Well, never mind. That's not going anywhere.

But perhaps it's that spot-on naivety that has put the Pirates in position to even have what everyone else can freely -- and accurately -- label as a critical three-game series. This team remains unfazed by the influx of recent media attention and is undeterred when, on paper, it appears entirely overmatched.

Quite frankly, the Pirates are acting as if they have been here before -- making a chase at a division title nearly four months into the season. It's a bold perspective when you consider it comes from members of an organization that hasn't finished above .500 since Bill Clinton was elected president -- the first time.

But it's also working.

"If we start putting pressure on ourselves because of who we're playing, it's not conducive to playing well. It's just putting pressure on ourselves," Morton said. "We weren't putting undo pressure on ourselves early in the year. There is no reason to start now. We know what's going on."

As do the Cardinals, who, regardless of how they fare Thursday, will begin play on Friday still trailing the Pirates in what has evolved into a perplexing and intriguing four-team race in the National League Central.

Not since 1999 has St. Louis finished a season looking up at Pittsburgh in the standings. You'd have to go back seven additional years to find the last time the Cardinals traveled to Pittsburgh this late in the season and engaged in a series that was meaningful to both teams.

Arriving in Pittsburgh on July 30, 1992, trailing the first-place Pirates by 4 1/2 games, the Cardinals were swept in the four-game set. The Pirates went on to win the National League East. St. Louis never recovered to get any closer than eight games behind them.

Memories of that 1992 season are evoked regularly in Pittsburgh these days, though it's highly unlikely that any member of these two clubs knows anything about that series 19 years ago. Nor should they care.

The reality now is that these two teams will face each other 16 times this season, and only three of those matchups have already taken place. That sets up for an exciting next 10 weeks in which the Pirates will play 29 games against the three other NL Central contenders. The Cardinals have 25 such games of their own, though they're not looking past the first three.

"They're legitimate," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of the Pirates. "They're pitching well, they're competing. Their young guys are now into their second or third or fourth year. They're coming together. Their closer is really as good as anybody out there right now, which is another key feature for being a legitimate team."

The Pirates have embraced the transition from hunter to hunted, and it's happened one year after the team actually prided itself in helping to begin the Cardinals' demise.

Pittsburgh took two of three against the Cardinals late last August in the first series of a critical three-city road swing for St. Louis. By the time the Cardinals returned to Pittsburgh a month later, they found themselves already out of the division race.

The Pirates ended up winning that series, too.

Now making the stop in Pittsburgh on the tail end of a three-city trip, the Cardinals view this as an opportunity to make their own statement.

"Nobody thought that Charlie Morton was going to be Roy Halladay or Jeff Karstens was going to be Roy Oswalt," said St. Louis outfielder Lance Berkman. "You just didn't project that. But they've certainly done it. And, hey, it is what it is ... and we've got to try to catch them."

The Cardinals, who have played near .500 baseball on the road this season, will attempt to become the first road team to win a series in Pittsburgh since the Braves swept a two-game set May 24-25. The Pirates have won nine of their last 12 home games and, as has become the norm during recent weekend series, they are expecting to face the Cardinals in front of three sellout crowds.

"The fans make it into a big series, and I'm sure that's going to happen this weekend," Hanrahan said. "It's been an electric atmosphere. It's going to be an exciting weekend to be at the ballpark."

Exciting, yes. And for a change, meaningful, as well.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.