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Hurdle knows Bucs have work cut out for them

PITTSBURGH -- "Plan A is off the board," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said on Wednesday night soon after St. Louis' National League Central-clinching 11-1 victory was on the PNC Park scoreboard. "The next objective is to show up and win Friday night."

The Bucs will probably need that win, and possibly others in a regular-season-ending weekend series with the Reds, to claim Plan B, home-field advantage against the Cubs in Wednesday night's NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser.

"No, we're not going to have a hard time refocusing on that," Andrew McCutchen said. "We want to finish the last three games at home strong, secure that spot. We'll get ourselves prepared. That's what it's all about."

The Pirates' goal since the dawn of Spring Training disappeared over the wall in right-center in the third inning of a brisk autumn night.

"The Wild Card is a fun game, but it's hopefully going to be fun for somebody else this year," general manager Neal Huntington said back on Feb. 19 in Bradenton, Fla. "We're going to have an absolute battle for our division, and our goal is to win it."

Instead the Bucs watched the Cardinals win it, for the third straight year, fueled by a Jason Heyward grand slam that eerily felt like the one the Giants' Brandon Crawford hit here almost exactly a year ago.

One big difference: Crawford's slam knocked the Pirates into winter. Heyward knocked them into another Wild Card Game.

So now the Bucs know what -- Chicago. They know when -- Wednesday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m. ET. They even know who -- Gerrit Cole vs. Jake Arrieta.

What they do not yet know is where. The Bucs' chances to host a third straight Wild Card Game remained frozen late Wednesday night with their loss and the Cubs' win. They still need two markers -- wins by them, losses by the Cubs or any combination thereof.

Of his team's challenge to regroup, Hurdle said, "It won't be difficult at all. It's what's next. The ultimate 'So what? Now what?' Our ultimate goal hasn't changed, to win a World [Series] championship. We've just got to go about it in a different way."

While the Bucs are playing the Reds here, the Cubs' will be in Milwaukee for the final weekend following a Thursday afternoon game in Cincinnati.

Wherever they meet the Cubs, who are back in the postseason for the first time since being swept in the 2008 NL Division Series by the Dodgers, it will be a difficult first hurdle for the Pirates' hopes for a deep postseason foray. The Cubs have been a year-long problem, and even found PNC Park less than intimidating by taking the last three games of a four-game series from Sept. 15-17.

The Cubs took the season series, 11-8, with Arrieta starting four of the wins while posting an 0.75 ERA.

"It's a hard league," Hurdle said in reference to 96 wins-and-counting not sufficing for a division title.

This is how hard the 2015 NL Central is: The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs have the three best records in the Majors. In the first 21 seasons of three-division play, no division has ever boasted MLB's top three teams. In fact, even the top two teams came out of a division only once, in 2001, when the Mariners won 116 and the A's won 102 in the American League West.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast.
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