To get in, Pirates just might have to win NL Central crown

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is a big fan of cashing in on opportunities, and he tries his hardest to get his players to buy into that line of thinking.

The way the National League standings are stacking up at the present time, the Pirates may very well need to win the NL Central Division championship in order to advance into the postseason for the second straight year.

And last week, the door opened wider for the Bucs to do it.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, both currently ahead of the Pirates in the division standings, suffered the loss of key players for extended periods with injuries.

Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina and Reds’ second baseman Brandon Phillips both went down with torn ligaments in their thumbs on the same night. Both are expected to be out for at least two months.

While Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny is adopting the company line about other players needing to step up and pick up the slack for the multi-talented Molina, there’s no doubt that his absence is a heavy blow to the team’s chances of repeating as league champions.

When Molina was previously sidelined due to injury, the Cardinals had won a total of just 50 of 101 games.

The Reds suffered a double whammy with Phillips’ injury. It came after slugging first baseman Joey Votto was sent to the disabled list for the second time this season with knee/quadriceps issues.

Though the Reds have arguably the best starting pitching staff – from 1 to 5 – in the division, first-year manager Bryan Price will be challenged to mix and match to get his best lineup on the field in the next couple months.

Couple all of this with the first-place Milwaukee Brewers’ recent horrendous slide – 11 losses in 12 games in which the Brewers were averaging less than three runs per game before hanging 11 runs on the Cardinals last Sunday – and you’ve got what appears to be a perfect storm for the Pirates.

“We have to continue to compete and go out there and trust our talent, because we’re a really talented team,” Pirates’ reliever Jared Hughes said recently at PNC Park.

On paper, the Pirates appear poised to make a move. But things don’t often pan out on the field as neatly as they do on a spreadsheet.

The Reds showed that to be the case by winning two of three games with the Bucs in Cincinnati, just before the all-star break, rallying late to win the series opener, 6-5, and using a rookie’s first major-league home run for a 6-3 victory in the finale.

The Pirates were fortunate to be able to squeak out one win in the series, thanks to Andrew McCutchen’s solo homers in the ninth and 11th innings in the middle game after the Bucs had blown a 4-0 lead and fallen behind, 5-4.

So the fact that the Pirates’ schedule between tonight – when they open a three-game series at home against the woeful Colorado Rockies, and three weeks hence, when they close a three-game home series against the equally woeful San Diego Padres – appears extremely forgiving might be a big trap.

The games still have to be played on the field, but the fact is that over the next three weeks, the Pirates will play a total of 16 games against four teams – Arizona and Miami are also in that mix – with losing records.

If they’re going to make a run, now is the time.

Moreover, the impending July 31 non-waiver trading deadline should hold some added intrigue this season. It will be real interesting to see what the Cardinals do.

St. Louis also has injury issues surrounding one of its postseason heroes from a year ago, young righthanded pitcher Michael Wacha. So the Cardinals are in the hunt for a front-line starting pitcher – the names of Tampa Bay’s David Price and Boston’s Jake Peavy have been linked to the Redbirds in trade rumors – but so are the Pirates, who don’t really have a shut-down starter at the moment.

Francisco Liriano was that type of pitcher a year ago, but he’s been a shell of his former self this year. Gerrit Cole showed earmarks of being that type of pitcher before the injury bug bit him this season.

The Reds figure to add a big bat, and who knows what the Brewers will be up to.

From this viewpoint, the Pirates and seven other National League teams – the Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals, and Atlanta Braves – all have chances to either win division titles or capture one of the two wild-card playoff spots.

It’s unlikely, but not impossible, for three teams from one division to advance to the postseason, as was the case last fall when the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds made it from the National League Central. Just 3 games now separate the top four teams in the division, with the Brewers holding a one-game lead over second-place St. Louis.

The Pirates must markedly improve on their dreadful combined record of 12-26 against the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers, who they will meet six times apiece between August 22 and the end of the regular season.

The opportunity is there for the Bucs, but so is the challenge.

“That’s the way we want it,” Hughes said. “We want to be facing the best. We want to go out there every night, and prove that we’re the best.”

John Hartsock can be reached at