Bucs, Cards set for series of playoff proportions

Bucs, Cards set for series of playoff proportions

Bucs, Cards set for series of playoff proportions
PITTSBURGH -- Near where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers merge to form the Ohio, the Pirates and the Cardinals will meet to shape the National League's 2012 postseason picture.

They flow into each other on Monday night for the first of three at PNC Park, one encouraged by recent history, the other threatened by it.

St. Louis, a .500 club as recently as June 21, hopes to for an encore of its 2011 mad rush to a World Series title. With 16 wins in their last 25 games and having already assumed a two-game lead for the second Wild Card spot, the RedBirds are well on their way.

Pittsburgh is obsessed with avoiding its 2011 fade into oblivion, which, with 13 losses in its last 19 games, is becoming a legitimate haunt.

And for a sense of deja vu that sends chills down general manager Neal Huntington's spine, there is the 19-inning albatross. The Bucs lost one of those on July 26, 2011, and went 1-11 in the next 12. They won it this time, in St. Louis, but are 1-5 since. The Cardinals have had the mirror reaction to that marathon, winning five of six games since.

"We've had a tough stretch here. Every team goes through it," Huntington said. "It's time for our guys to regroup, and refocus our energies on what we have to take care of. This is exciting -- this is why we do this, to play meaningful games late in the season. To do that, you've got to beat the good teams. It's going to be a fun series."

No one will accuse the Pirates of playing at a high level on the approach to this series. But no one can deny they don't go into it on a high. In a sense, this is the series for which they have played for five months: the opportunity to prolong a meaningful summer into September.

The Bad News Bucs have been invited to press their noses against the glass of the postseason showcase: Wednesday night's series finale will be on national television. How prominently they remain on display will essentially be up to them.

"We definitely understand there is more at stake these next three days," said second baseman Neil Walker. "Your senses rise for games when you're playing the team right in front of you. We know we have a challenge on our hands, and are certainly up for it."

"But," added Walker, returning to players' classic one-day-at-a-time mode, "I don't think we'll get any more amped than we were yesterday, or the day before."

That's fine, because the games will be decided on the field, not on adrenaline.

And on the mound, where the matchups are refreshingly even. The Cardinals have lined up Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Joe Kelly, a trio that has combined for 30 wins this season. But the Pirates counter with A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and lefty Wandy Rodriguez -- whose combined 34 wins are right in step.

Never at a loss for motivation to take to the hill, Burnett will open up the series Monday night with ample incentive: It will be his first meeting with the Cardinals since that infamous May 2 date when they raked him for 12 runs in 2 2/3 innings.

The 15-game winner has been the Pirates' unequaled stopper, something at which he has had way too much practice, especially of late. This will be his fifth straight start following a loss.

Of the three Pittsburgh starters, McDonald is the only one who faced the Cardinals in the teams' recent series in St. Louis. He threw two-hit shutout ball for six innings in a 2-1 victory that set up the Bucs' series win.

The siren song of October continues its seductive waft into the Pirates' ears, but to keep the music playing they need to rediscover their misplaced "complete game."

"We've got to play better to win, and they know that," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We have to pitch better, we have to take advantage of opportunities on offense. We have to get some rhythm going. It's not complicated."

In their last nine games, the Pirates have hit .194 (14-for-72) with men in scoring position. In 12 of their last 13 home games, their pitchers have allowed five-plus runs -- in stark contrast to having allowed that many only seven times in the first 50 home games. Even the power -- the team's unexpected signature through mid-August -- has lost several calibers, with only five homers the last nine games.

"These last three weeks have been tough for us, no question," Walker said, "but we have to keep grinding it out. That's kind of our motto. Keep grinding it out until we're back to playing the game at the level we know we can."

No one can take that motto more personally than Andrew McCutchen, who has been mortal in August after spending June and July stirring some of the game's greatest ghosts.

McCutchen has never been confused with Joe DiMaggio, but a nation has turned its lonely eyes to him. After a second consecutive hitless game on Sunday, his average (.343) slipped for the first time below that of Melky Cabrera (.346), who could win a batting title while suspended under Major League Baseball's drug policy.

The nation is rooting for McCutchen, even if only on principle. The same underdog-loving nation is ready to embrace the Pirates. But they've got to give 'em a reason, and the first of three chances for that arrives Monday night.

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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.