PITTSBURGH -- When Major League Baseball created a second Wild Card spot for each league before last season, the idea was to add even more excitement to those closing days of September, while providing incentive for teams to win their divisions.
The top three teams of the National League Central -- the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds -- have pulled their weight in the excitement part as it will be a fight to the finish. Two of the teams -- Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- meet each other in six of their final nine games. The first three games begin Friday at PNC Park.
After the Cards lost to the Rockies, 7-6, in 15 innings on Thursday afternoon, the Bucs (88-65) moved to one game back of first, while the Reds (87-66) are two behind, sitting in third place.
"We expect to beat those guys, just as those guys expect to beat us," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Honestly as a team that's played well, you can't ask for anything more than having the destiny really up to you when you go into a place and it's all in your hands. We're a good team. We have six chances to really take care of business and to do that."
Both teams still have their eyes on overtaking St. Louis for the NL Central crown, obviously. But short of that, and more realistically, these final two series clashes could very well decide who will host the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday, Oct. 1. Both teams also need to hold off the surging Nationals for the final playoff spot.
"It's fantastic. It's what you play for," Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett said. "They're big games, but you've got to remember they're not the only games. I think we're OK with that in [the clubhouse], hope the fans keep that in mind, too."
Coming off series losses to the Cubs at home and in Milwaukee, the Reds got back on track by sweeping three in Houston against an Astros team with the Majors' worst record. After a very hot start, the Pirates have been a .500 team since August and saw some momentum slow more after dropping three of four to the Padres. A 10-1 win on Thursday over San Diego snapped an offensive funk for a Bucs club that scored only 16 runs over the first seven games of its homestand.
"If you had told us we'd win one of four in this series, I'd have said I'll take the last game, for sure," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "Certainly not the best feeling -- this wasn't our best series."
This season, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati became a matchup worthy of a rivalry. The Pirates, enjoying their first winning season in two decades, hold a 7-6 advantage in the season series. But five of the games have been decided by one run and all but two of the 13 games were decided by three runs or fewer. The Bucs have won four of the six games over the Reds on their home turf.
"We are going to hold our destiny in our hands the next week and a half," said Reds starter Mat Latos, who starts on Friday. "You look at the way we've played against Pittsburgh, it really hasn't been too great this season. Earlier in the year, there were a couple of blown saves and a couple where we played bad."
The Reds and Pirates' pitching staffs have combined for 22 hit batters this season, which is third most between any two teams in the Majors. Shin-Soo Choo has been plunked six times for Cincinnati, while Starling Marte was hit four times. Reds All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips was hit twice, including a June 1 plunking on the forearm on a Tony Watson fastball that put him out for four games.
"It's going to be really exciting. I'm juiced. You're going to feel a little fall atmosphere," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said. "Hopefully, it will be a packed house and a lot of craziness will happen and we come out with victories."
It should be, as the Pirates are arguably playing one of the biggest home-schedule-ending series in their 127-year history. In 1978, they went into a four-game series with the Phillies from Sept. 29-Oct. 1 (one day was a doubleheader), trailing them by 3 1/2 games. They took only three out of four and finished second in the NL East. In 1970, they were 2 1/2 games up on the second-place Mets and swept all three games.
"Absolutely, it's cool," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You're blazing new trails, doing new things. We had a to-do list coming in, have knocked down some. So much new territory covered, positive momentum, growth, maturity. Wonderful, good for the fans, good for our players. It will be an exciting weekend, experience you can't get any other way."
Since these two teams last met on July 21, their roster makeup has changed. The Pirates were frisky before the Aug. 31 waiver Deadline, adding bats in Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd, who has five homers and 22 RBIs vs. the Reds lifetime.
Cincinnati made no trades, but it got run producer Ryan Ludwick back after four months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. The September roster expansion also brought top prospect and speed burner Billy Hamilton, who is 9-for-9 in steals with six runs scored. Pirates catcher Russell Martin was asked if he would lose sleep thinking about Hamilton.
"Nah. Can't wait to throw him out," Martin said. "Seen him run; he's quick, very quick."
The Reds recalibrated their rotation to get three of their best starters in line for this series. Latos will be going for a career-high 15 wins against 16-game winner Francisco Liriano on Friday. Homer Bailey, who threw a no-hitter at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28 last season, drew Burnett for Saturday, and Bronson Arroyo will face All-Star lefty Jeff Locke on Sunday.
"If we can take five out of six, it doesn't cover up the mistakes in the games we had beforehand, but it does make up a lot of ground," said Latos, who is 4-3 with a 2.59 ERA over his past eight starts. "Let's be honest, it would be real sweet to just take them at the end of the season and push them behind us and not look back."
The Pirates are considering having Liriano pitch again next weekend on short rest. The alternative is obvious, depending on how things play out. On his regular schedule, the lefty would be the one to start either a tiebreaker or an NL Wild Card Game. In his three previous starts against the Reds in 2013, Liriano is 0-3 with a 4.41 ERA.
Latos is currently on schedule for a possible Game 163 -- a regular-season tiebreaker for the NL Central or the NL Wild Card Game. Scoring runs for Latos has been an issue at times. In each of his past three losses, the Reds scored one or zero runs.
Before the scenarios for the postseason can be locked down, these six games should factor big.
"Would you rather be up 10 games like we were last year? Sure," Frazier said. "But this gets you ready for the playoffs."
Mark Sheldon and Tom Singer are reporters for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less