Fresh off a 4-2 home stand, the Pittsburgh Pirates will travel to Great American Ballpark on Monday to take on the division-rival Cincinnati Reds in what is shaping up to one of the most crucial series so far this season.
The Pirates want to keep the momentum going as they battle not just for second place in the Central division, but for first place in the wild card race. Tied for the top wild card spot with almost identical records (the Reds have one more win at 42-28), neither team wants to lose ground to the front-running St. Louis Cardinals.
More important to Pirates, they’ll be looking to establish their legitimacy as a serious playoff contender and proving that they’re not just another crash-and-burn version of the previous two summers’ teams. While it’s still a bit early for that scenario, the Pirates need to send a message to the Reds as well as the rest of the league that this year is going to be different.
Taking at least two games on the road in Cincinnati would go a long way to accomplishing that, if not just for their own psyche. The Pirates have proven capable road warriors so far, going 16-15 away from PNC Park, where their 25 home wins are most in both leagues.
Sweeping the Reds at home back in April, the Pirates recently lost two of three to the Redbirds in a heated series that once again involved Reds second basemen Brandon Phillips being hit by a pitch. Phillips was hit twice in that series, once after Andrew McCutchen was plunked, taking exception to what some thought was retaliation for the Pirates’ star being hit.
Last season, Phillips had a run-in with Pirates’ reliever Jared Hughes after being hit, tossing the baseball back to mound and having a few choice words with the fiery reliever that were allegedly racial in nature. Nothing came of it and the two have since seemingly patched up their differences, but there’s no doubt that a touch of bad blood still remains between the teams.
With another 13 games remaining to be played between the two teams, every game is big. The Pirates need to take care of business against their divisional opponents if they want to be serious playoff contenders this summer. This important four-game series gives them the opportunity.