Published January 13, 2015
Call it the playoffs before the playoffs.
With the NL Central title a long shot for one club, and impossible for the other, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds clash on Friday night for the opener of a three-game series that will decide home-field advantage in next week's wild card game.
That is the likely scenario for the two clubs, who have both already clinched playoff spots. Cincinnati's loss on Wednesday eliminated it from contention for the division crown, while Pittsburgh also lost last time out to fall three games back of the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards open a three-game set with the visiting Chicago Cubs on Friday night with a magic number of one to clinch the division.
The Pirates have a one-game lead over the Reds for the first wild card spot and home-field advantage in Tuesday's one-game wild card matchup. The teams have split 16 meetings this season after the Reds took two of three in Pittsburgh last weekend, so the winner of this set will own the first wild card.
Looking to make things easier for themselves ahead of this set, the Pirates instead lost 4-2 to the Cubs and were denied the three-game sweep.
"We'll try to win a couple, and go from there," Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said of the team's final series versus the Reds. "I remember at the beginning of the season, no one gave us a chance, and now look where we are. I'm just happy we can be there."
The Pirates are headed to the postseason for the first time since 1992, while the Reds are set for their third trip in four years. They hope next week's postseason begins for them at Great American Ball Park.
"We just gotta go out and play our game," Reds starter Mat Latos said. "It doesn't matter where it's at."
Latos pitched seven strong innings of one-run ball versus the New York Mets on Wednesday, but lost a 1-0 decision.
Pittsburgh's lone victory over Cincinnati at home last weekend came on Saturday when A.J. Burnett beat Homer Bailey and the two right-handers square off again.
Burnett won the 4-2 decision after allowing two runs on four hits and three walks over seven innings. He also struck out 12 in a game for the first time since hitting that mark on Aug. 27, 2009 while with the New York Yankees.
"I was just focused, I was locked in," Burnett said.
Burnett, 36, improved to 9-11 with a 3.39 earned run average this year and will try to hit double-digit wins for a ninth straight season.
"We just couldn't get much going against (Burnett). We got some runs early, then he settled down," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
It marked the 19th time in 29 starts this year that Burnett allowed two earned runs or fewer and he is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in three games versus the Reds this season.
Bailey, meanwhile, fell to 11-11 with a 3.40 ERA following his first setback since July 26. He was charged with four runs -- two earned -- on three hits and four walks over 5 2/3 innings, but still has an ERA of 2.77 over his last 12 starts.
The 27-year-old, who had a six-decision win streak snapped, is 0-2 with a 3.50 ERA in three starts against the Pirates this year.