NL Central's Pirates, Reds worthy of postseason
Two Wild Card winners make division first to have three playoff teams
PITTSBURGH -- As the 2013 National League postseason opens, breakthroughs of historical proportions will be made. This is a fact, not a prediction.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will return to the postseason for the first time in 21 years. They will do so Tuesday night in the wonderful setting of their home, PNC Park, in the NL Wild Card Game against the Cincinnati Reds.
No matter how this postseason turns out, the proud Pittsburgh franchise will once again be associated with success. Those seeking to find futility will have to look elsewhere, for considerable time to come.
And for the first time in history, three teams from the same division will be represented in the postseason. The powerhouse, history-making division in question is the National League Central, home of the Pirates and the Reds and, of course, the division-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
Those who have been paying attention and taking notes will point out that there couldn't possibly have been three teams representing one division in the playoffs until 2012, when the Wild Card was expanded to two teams in each league.
Good call. But so many of the alleged wise men/women who wrote about the expansion of the Wild Card format said that this change meant that if ever some division qualified three teams for the postseason, it would be the American League East. After all, wasn't the AL East actually the center of the baseball world, not to mention the core of Western civilization?
To both contentions a good, solid "perhaps not" seems to be in order. One through three, there wasn't a division in baseball that was close to the quality of the three clubs the NL Central qualified for the postseason.
And now, any of these clubs could be capable of making a deep postseason run. They all have the leading postseason essential, pitching, to advance. The Pirates, Reds and Cardinals were second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in team ERA in the NL.
The problem for the Pirates and Reds, of course, is that they have to play each other in this one do-or-die baseball game. For those who complained in the past that Wild Card teams were not penalized enough for failing to win a division, here is the opposite end of the spectrum.
By the records, these are two of the five best teams in the entire Senior Circuit. But one of them will be one and done after Tuesday night. The need for postseason drama is satisfied by this format, although equity might request a minimum two-out-of-three.
And for the team that wins, a familiar opponent looms. The winner of Reds/Pirates will have to face the Cardinals in a Division Series matchup. This occurs because the Cardinals compiled the best record in the league. They also tied for the best record in the Majors with the Boston Red Sox.
The win-or-get-lost playoff game looks to begin with the kind of pitching prowess the postseason is supposed to have. Look at this matchup for the Wild Card Game. Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh's de facto ace, will start. He has an 8-1 record with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park this season. No matter what happens in this game, picking up Liriano was one of the most astute personnel moves that any team made this season.
The Reds, meanwhile, will start Johnny Cueto, who is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA in his career at PNC Park. Cueto has had only two starts since coming back from his third trip to the disabled list this season, and he is being pressed into service because Mat Latos is suffering from arm soreness. But Cueto was solid in those last two starts and when healthy, he would be considered the ace of the Cincinnati rotation.
These are two teams that stand up and shout on behalf of the notion that the expanded Wild Card field will not dilute the postseason's talent. They are fully deserving of postseason berths. They belong here, and one of them is going to deserve to be somewhere beyond that.
And for the Pirates, hosting a postseason game as the No. 1 Wild Card team, there is a real sense of renewal for a great baseball town. Nobody will win this game until Tuesday night, but baseball is already ahead.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.