The addition of a second wild-card playoff berth in both the National and American Leagues in 2012 has not only heightened interest across the board. It could be a godsend for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are having their best season in two decades this year.
The Pirates have been battling the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the National League Central Division this entire summer. The Pirates are still not out of the running for the division title, even though the Reds were able to gain some breathing room with a recent 15-2 run.
Although the Pirates wrapped up a disappointing 4-7 homestand Thursday, the Bucs' resurgence this season has created the backdrop for the most interesting baseball viewing summer here in recent memory.
The NL wild card scenario, which has had the Pirates, Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals as major contenders for two playoff openings, adds to what has been an unprecedented season of excitement.
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. They haven't made the playoffs since then, either. Both of those onerous streaks could very well come to an end this year.
The Pirates' win on Thursday left them four games behind Atlanta for the top wild-card playoff spot, and just one-half game ahead of St. Louis for the second and final wild-card berth, pending the outcome of the Cardinals' rain-delayed game with Arizona late Thursday. San Francisco - which lost standout Melky Cabrera for the season earlier this week due to a banned substance violation - is just one-half game behind the first-place Dodgers in the West Division, and only one game behind the Pirates for the second wild card.
This weekend's three-game series between the Pirates and defending world champion Cardinals in St. Louis, along with another three-game set between the two clubs that is coming up Aug. 27-29 at PNC Park, could go a long way toward shaping the final National League wild-card playoff picture.
This would especially be so if one or the other of these two teams can win a decisive majority of the six games - say, five - in the pair of showdown series that will feature a postseason aura. The Pirates and Cardinals have been extremely competitive with each other this year, having split six previous games in St. Louis' Busch Stadium. The Cards won two of three in an April visit to Pittsburgh.
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones remarked earlier this week that every game seems like a playoff game now, and that's the way the rest of this season should pan out.
If the Pirates can remain in front of the chase for the second wild card entering September, they would have considerable control of their own destiny. That's because the Bucs' September schedule appears to be quite navigable - with 22 of 28 games against teams which currently have losing records. The Pirates will close the month with three home dates against the Reds, followed by three early-October home games with the Braves that could determine the National League's first and second wild-card spots.
In September and early October combined, the Cardinals will play only 13 of 31 games against teams with losing records. They play the Washington Nationals - who currently own the best record in the major leagues - in a pair of home-and-away three-game series. The Cardinals also visit the Dodgers for four games, and finish the season with three home games against Cincinnati.
The Giants play only six of their final 30 games against a team - the Dodgers - which currently has a winning record. However, San Francisco must also play nine games against a heavy-hitting Arizona team which still has a remote chance at the second wild-card spot itself.
The first-seeded wild-card finisher in each league will host the second-seeded wild card team in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup that will yield the right to advance into the rest of the postseason tournament.
The Cardinals know all about how important a wild-card berth can be. They won the World Series last fall after sneaking into the playoffs as a wild-card entry. Their quest to pull off a similar accomplishment this year could very well begin tonight, and the Pirates will be doing their best to stop it.
John Hartsock can be reached at email@example.com.