Since the illustrious Aaron Finkel resigned from his perch atop Viva el Birdos acclaim to focus on more noble pursuits, series previews here have gone by the wayside. As the season comes to a close and the final push for the playoffs begin, each series cast a little bit more importance. And with that, I am happy to present to you the return of the Viva el Preview. I know I will never be able to bring the same flare and pizzazz that my esteemed former colleague was able to during his tenure, but I hope you will find my attempt to fill such large and comfortable slippers acceptable. On to the preview!
The 86-47 Cardinals are set to host the 79-53 Pirates for a three game set this weekend. With a 6.5 game lead for first place in the dogfight that has become the NL Central, this series carries even more significance for both teams. The Pirates are clinging tightly to second place in the division and the National League and are looking to make a move to push past the Cardinals in the hopes of avoiding that brutal Wild Card play-in game they have hosted the past two years. The Cardinals, leading Major League Baseball in record for most of the season, hope to avoid this fate as well. A sweep could either bring the Pirates into striking distance or virtually end the chase, pushing the Cardinals out of reach. The tension is always high when these two teams face off, and with the stakes raised, this series is bound to be thrilling.
Gracious enough to discuss this series with me is site manager for Bucs Dugout, Charlie Wilmoth. Charlie has been writing witty and insightful Pirates commentary for, well, as long as I can remember (he also published a book last year about the Pirates first winning season after twenty years)! Be sure to check out what he and the rest of the Bucs Dugout crew are up to for all things Pirates!
Viva el Birdos: Okay, so here goes! Just let me know if any of these questions are dumb!
... In thirteen games against each other this season, the Cardinals have won seven and the Pirates have won six, many games going into extra-innings with the Pirates having the advantage in runs scored by a single run (53 - 52). What do you think makes these teams play so evenly?
Bucs Dugout: I was going to say they're both outstanding at run prevention, but looking back through the game log, I don't think that actually explains many games between the two teams other than the three they played back in April. It's probably mostly just variance and the fact that they're both very good. It's been fun to see the two teams' rivalry deepen this season.
VB: Well every good rivalry has to have a "villain" and Pedro Alvarez seems to have plagued my nightmares for years now, and more recently driving me crazy is Jung-ho Kang - both seem to have the most back-breaking hits against the Cardinals. I would say Cutch also falls into this category, but I just treasure him so much I could never hold it against him. What player on the Cardinals annoys you the most when they face the Pirates?
BD: Kolten Wong seems to do a disproportionate amount of damage against the Pirates. He has three homers against them this season, including that walk-off shot back in May, and he had three last year too. Given that he only has 23 total homers in the past two years, that doesn't seem right.
(Sorry Charlie. I have to do this.)
VEB: So, speaking of Kang, he seems to be having a fantastic season - a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in my opinion. I must admit that unfortunately I have heard and read very little about him. Could you give me a quick overview on what he brings to the team? Should he win ROY?
(Extra ROY votes for this, I say.)
BD: You probably have to go with Kris Bryant, but it's a loaded class, and Kang has been great. He's a steady, confident defender at both shortstop and third (although his range isn't ideal for short), and he's a strong baserunner as well. He's aggressive and opportunistic at the plate and he crushes fastballs, even though there were questions heading into the season about how his swing mechanics would work against hard-throwing big leaguers. His control of the strike zone hasn't been outstanding, so maybe there's something there for pitchers to exploit. But so far, he radiates competence in all phases of the game. His old Nexen Heroes teammate Byung-Ho Park, who could come to the big leagues next year, must be grateful for the precedent Kang has set.
VEB: As it stands now (NO JINX), the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs would all make the postseason in some fashion and two of these three teams would play each other in the NLDS round - despite having the top three records in the National League. Do you think the league should change its playoff structure like re-seeding after the Wild Card game? (I personally am going to be pretty miffed if they do not re-seed.)
BD: It's a blatantly unfair system. The seeding issue is bad enough, but there's also the fact that the Pirates have the second-best record in the National League and they'll likely have to take a coin flip to even get to play in the NLDS. In the interest of fairness, I'd rather the league just went back to one Wild Card. Unfortunately, the 2013 NL Wild Card game and the 2014 AL game have shown that these contests make great TV, so they're probably here to stay.
VEB: Care to give any predictions for the series? There has to be at least five extra innings played and Cutch has at least one key hit, right?
BD: The Pirates are six and a half games back of the Cards with a month to play, so they need something big here. My hope is that they'll play with such power, grace and confidence in the first game that the Cardinals will become unshakably convinced of the Bucs' superiority and forfeit the rest of the season. Anything less than that would be a disappointment.
I just want to say thank you to Charlie for crafting such lovely responses and encourage everyone to check out Bucs Dugout for more Pirates news!