WASHINGTON — The Pirates may not be getting a lot of attention this season like they did last year, but they still had a chance, on the last day of the regular season, of forcing a Game 163 on Monday to decide the National League Central crown. Instead, they get to host the NL Wild Card game against the Giants on Wednesday, as Pittsburgh won the season series against San Fran.
The Buccos had the third-best winning percentage in September. With 51 wins at PNC Park, tied for the most in the NL, the Pirates pose a serious threat at home. If they win the Wild Card Game, they would give the Nationals a run for their money. Andrew McCutchen — who is in the running for back-to- back NL MVP Awards and was on the disabled list when Pittsburgh visited Nats Park last month — is healthy and always a pain in Washington’s side, batting .375/.435/.750 with 13 home runs in 34 career games against the Nats.
Pittsburgh is a much better team this season than last year, when they seemed like they were just glad to finish above .500 and go to the playoffs. Remember, the Pirates were up 2 games to 1 in the NLDS against the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals before the clock struck midnight on the 2013 campaign, losing in Game 5.
With slugger Pedro Alvarez injured? No problem, as there has been plenty of help in the lineup thanks to the surprising Josh Harrison, who finished second in the hunt for the NL batting title (McCutchen finished third). Then there’s left fielder Starling Marte; the heart of the club, backstop Russell Martin; and a healthy second baseman in Neil Walker with a career-high 23 homers. And don’t forget shortstop Jordy Mercer pitching in 40-plus extra-base hits.
The Pirates starting rotation begins with Francisco Liriano, who strikes out more than a batter per inning and is undefeated with a 1.23 ERA since Aug. 25. Edinson Volquez, has an ERA a tick above 3, and Gerrit Cole struck out 12 in the regular-season finale in Cincinnati.
Being a Pirates fan has not been easy for a while, but they have been a fun team to watch the last few seasons. In fact, being superstitious — as most baseball people are — I missed seeing Pittsburgh play in D.C. for the first time in 2013, and the Buccos snapped their long streak of losing and made the playoffs. So this season, when I had a chance to see them at Nats Park, I decided to keep with tradition and work at WTOP during the three-game series in August.
I say if Pittsburgh wins the Wild Card game, watch out Nats. If anything, this team won’t roll over as they try to advance to the NLCS this year, and maybe even exact a little revenge against Chris Core’s Cardinals — or even Andrew Mollenbeck’s Dodgers. Here’s hoping for a 12:07 p.m. ET start at Nats Park this Friday in Game 1 of the NLDS.
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