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As August dawns, Bucs gear for showdown series

CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh's crusade of baseball revisionism has reached a captivating point. August is here. And so, still, are the Pirates.

We don't know how the story ends. But the Bucs' attempts to white out 19 years of losing has led to the team's most important, most must-see series in 15 years.

They take on the Reds in the first of three Friday night at Great American Ball Park, no longer with a chance to leave town with the National League Central lead -- the Reds took care of that with a Thursday afternoon victory over San Diego to stretch their division lead to 3 1/2 games -- but a great opportunity to validate their role as contenders.

And the Pirates have been champing at the bit for this opportunity. The Reds have been frustrating them from afar for two weeks. Since July 17, the Bucs have gone 11-4 ... and dropped 2 1/2 games in the standings because the Reds were going 14-2.

It has been 15 years since the first- or second-place Pirates had a post-July showdown with the team they were racing. That it happened more recently than a winning season will come as a surprise -- but from Sept. 17-18 in 1997, the second-place Pirates (73-78) had a chance to cut into the 3 1/2-game lead of division-leading Houston (76-74); they split the two, and finished second.

So the last time the Bucs had such a meaningful late-season date, Neil Walker was doing whatever 12-year-old Western Pennsylvania kids do. This time, he will be playing in it.

When the significance of the series was brought up to him, Walker just laughed at his dismissive best. His Pirates downplay as hard as they play.

"Oh man," Walker said, "there is so much baseball left. We're playing good baseball right now. No matter what happens this weekend, we know who we are and that we got a lot of home games left. Yeah, this is a very important series. But in the big picture, it's just another series.

"I can totally see where [fans' high anticipation] is coming from. But this isn't football season," said the former Pine-Richland three-sport stud, "where every game is crucial. So absolutely I can see where people would be tremendously excited for this weekend, and we are, too -- rightfully so. But go with the old boring cliche ... one game at a time."

Game 1 belongs to the left-hander who wears No. 51 but could just as well have a question mark on his back. Clint Hurdle is giving the tone-setting ball to Wandy Rodriguez, the new guy, but one with pennant-race experience.

"It's a very important series. We got three games with them, and we want to win them all," said Rodriguez, who appreciates being the first one asked to tighten a race he just joined. "I'll do what I can to get us off to a good start. I pitched in Cincinnati once before this season and threw a good game."

On April 27, Rodriguez held the Reds to two runs and six hits in six innings of Houston's 6-4 victory. His career ERA at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park is a solid 3.90 in 11 starts.

An off-day Thursday has enabled Hurdle to make a rotation adjustment that reunites what had been a dynamic pitching duo: A.J. Burnett will get to face the Reds on Sunday on regular rest, meaning he will once again be following James McDonald. While the right-handers were paired for the last month prior to the All-Star break, the Bucs had gone 11-1 in their starts.

Burnett will be coming off his spectacular one-hitter against the Cubs on Tuesday, a gem in which he flirted with a no-hitter for 7 2/3 innings. McDonald, conversely, will be out to stop a slide which has seen him post an ERA of 8.31 in four second-half starts.

Reds manager Dusty Baker has lined up Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Ace Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo are out of the mix.

"We know what's at stake: We're playing the first-place team," Hurdle said. "We're looking forward to that and to playing some baseball. They're a very, very good ball team. The last time we were here, it was an exciting series, and we don't anticipate anything different."

On June 5-7, the last time the teams met, the Pirates took two of three here, culminating in a 10-inning rubber game settled in dramatic fashion on back-to-back doubles by Michael McKenry and Clint Barmes off previously untouched Aroldis Chapman.

A series of tough losses a year ago about this same time quickly took the starch out of his team. One reason Hurdle wouldn't join the build-up chorus for this series -- another being the practical fact that 55 more games, including six more with the Reds, will follow it.

Hurdle scoffed at the suggestion that these games will be a "measuring stick" of how the two teams compare with all the Trade Deadline dust settled. In addition to Rodriguez, the Pirates added outfielder Travis Snider, first baseman Gaby Sanchez and reliever Chad Qualls. The Reds added reliever Jonathan Broxton.

"It's an opportunity for us to take another look at them, now that they've also made some adjustments," Hurdle said. "As for the measuring-stick thing ... in baseball history, there's instances of measuring sticks and when you look at what happened a month later, that measuring stick did not measure up so well.

"We'll put all our focus on Game 1, and go from there."

As they were leaving Chicago on Wednesday night, the Pirates' focus wasn't yet even on that Game 1.

"Their focus is on that [Thursday] off-day. Something else I found out they're pretty good at -- they really like off-days," said Hurdle, a not-surprising discovery fully confirmed by the Major League's top hitter.

"I'm just focused on that off-day, I look forward to that," said Andrew McCutchen, who on the day learned he had successfully defended his National League Player of the Month Award for June with a July repeat.

"We'll get there," McCutchen said of the Reds, "and when it comes, we'll be ready to go. I'm sure it will be a pretty fun series."

Pittsburgh Pirates