Bucs' 'show up and play' mentality key in playoffs
LOS ANGELES -- Should anyone dispute the National League Central's standing as the best of Major League Baseball's six divisions, the status of the Pirates with two weeks left in the season should end that conversation abruptly.
At 89-60, after taking two of three from the Dodgers -- including Sunday's steamy rubber match, 4-3, behind Gerrit Cole -- the Bucs are clinging to second place in their division, two games ahead of the Cubs and four behind the front-running Cardinals.
Pittsburgh would be leading every other division.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, own a 7 1/2-game NL West lead over the Giants, with an 85-63 record that would have them 3 1/2 games behind the Pirates in the league standings that existed for decades before the advent of divisions and tiered playoffs.
"It's a very tough division, with the three best records in the National League," said Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez, whose eighth-inning RBI double was the difference in Saturday night's pivotal middle game. "We have to bring our A game every night. We always know St. Louis and the Cubs are right there.
"We're trying to win the division and get home-field advantage in the Wild Card; those are our goals right now. We're playing very good at home [50-25], so home-field advantage is huge. We only have two games on the Cubs.
"We have 13 games left, and we have one more series [Sept. 28-30 in Pittsburgh] against St. Louis. We just have to win as many games as we can."
The 3-2 decision on Saturday night -- achieved with Francisco Liriano outdueling the great Clayton Kershaw -- served multiple purposes.
It gave the Bucs a split against the Dodgers' matchless duo, after Zack Greinke had won the series opener, and it supplied momentum heading into the series finale in sweltering heat: 97 degrees at game time.
Cole, the 2011 No. 1 overall Draft pick from UCLA, showed why he stands on the threshold of the Kershaw and Greinke level of greatness. His fastball, in the 95-97 mph range, was lethal enough to overcome mistakes with his breaking stuff.
Seven resourceful innings (six hits, three runs, nine strikeouts) from the All-Star right-hander, who moved to 17-8, kept the Bucs in front. Tony Watson (38th hold) and Mark Melancon (48th save) finished the job.
Homers by Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez and Ramirez's RBI single in the fifth drove the offense against Mike Bolsinger, the Dodgers' No. 5 starter.
With the Dodgers seemingly destined for an NL Division Series showdown with the Mets, the Pirates have a chance to see them again in the NL Championship Series. If so, Pittsburgh's 5-1 season series advantage -- the Bucs swept L.A. at home -- could provide an emotional edge.
Ramirez, who made his Major League debut with the Pirates in 1998 but spent his prime seasons (2003-11) with the Cubs, has been around long enough to know regular-season performance doesn't always carry over into October.
He played in four postseason series as a Cub, including the unforgettable 2003 NLCS taken by the Marlins on their way to a World Series triumph. Ramirez had three homers, seven RBIs and a 1.029 OPS in those seven games against Florida, but the ending left Chicago and the Cubs Nation drained in sorrow.
Ramirez knows how dangerous the Dodgers can be with their twin aces poised to go into shutdown mode.
"I think they're good enough to go a long way," Ramirez said. "In the playoffs they've got Kershaw and Greinke, and you're going to face them twice [each]. They won't be easy to beat."
The Pirates, led by Andrew McCutchen, have an old-school style and feel. They attack the game in the impassioned manner of their storied predecessors, the incomparable "We Are Family" team, featuring Willie Stargell and Dave Parker, that won a Fall Classic in 1979.
While they lack the overall power of that outfit, these Bucs can manufacture runs, play quality defense and have top-shelf pitching. Their 3.21 team ERA is eclipsed only in the Majors by the Cardinals. The Dodgers are third at 3.36.
"We come, we show up and play," Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle said. "We don't let yesterday's news affect today's business."
The Pirates were preparing, all costumed up in superhero outfits, for a business trip to Denver, a place Hurdle knows so well. As the Rockies' manager in 2007, he took one of the great finishers of all-time to the World Series. That team won 14 of its last 15 to reach the postseason.
Hurdle would settle for a similar finish from his Bucs, who have won two in a row -- and are looking at 13 more A game efforts.