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Kovacevic: Hey, you wanted a pennant race

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez rounds the bases past Mets third baseman David Wright after hitting a two-run homer during the first inning Friday, July 12, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
A sellout crowd watches the Pirates take on the Brewers on Saturday, June 29, 2013, at PNC Park.

Winning 82 is the Pirates' goal until it isn't.

Been saying that for so much of The Streak that, no matter the math staring us all in the face, I won't stop until the Holy Grail is achieved, the 82 angels have played their 82 harps, all the Ghosts of Jason Christiansens Past are exorcised, and all the confetti is collected off the Boulevard of the Allies.

At the same time, there's got to be more than besting .500, obviously.

Playoffs?

Nope. Can't stop there, either, at least not in isolation.

Major League Baseball last year put into place a postseason format that's merciless to those that don't finish in first place: The two wild-card teams — a second was added — now face each other in a single-game elimination the day after the regular season ends. Imagine sweating through six months, only to have it all swing on how one pitcher might roll out of bed that morning.

Even if advancing, imagine having already spent your best pitcher — A.J. Burnett? Francisco Liriano? — and not having him early in the next round.

That what you want?

“Wild card? No,” Andrew McCutchen was telling me late Tuesday night in New York. “But man, that's a long way down the road. We're thinking about the Reds right now.”

Fine, but this challenging post-break reopening, a 10-game road trip that begins Friday night in Cincinnati, is as good a place as any to set the sights — inside and outside the organization — where they need to be: The Pirates absolutely should be competing for the Central Division title.

Sound unfair?

So be it. Times change. Circumstances change. What was expected after two Epic Collapses is different than what was expected at spring training is different than what's expected now. The Pirates themselves raised that bar, not the rest of us. They went 56-37. They produced the sport's best pitching staff. They sent five legit All-Stars to New York, left two or three others behind.

And yeah, they still can get better, whether it's current hitters stepping up — Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, everyone on the bench — or Neal Huntington finding help before the July 31 trade deadline.

But man, it won't be easy.

The Cardinals open the post-break standings just one game up on the Pirates, but, as a National League executive told me the other day at an All-Star event, “The reality is that St. Louis is playing on another level than Pittsburgh right now. The Cardinals are crushing teams.”

He's right, of course. The Cardinals' run differential, a powerful indicator of performance and potential, is plus-127 to the Pirates' plus-46. The reason: The Cardinals rank No. 1 in the National League in runs scored, the Pirates 14th out of 15. The Pirates pitch better, but not by much. They're No. 1 in ERA to the Cardinals' No. 3.

St. Louis visits PNC Park at month's end for a five-game series that will be as big as any played in these parts in two decades.

On top of that, it won't be any easier to fend off the teams in the side-view mirror, which, like the real thing, are closer than they appear.

The Reds would be the Pirates' opponent in that wild-card game if the season ended today, as they're technically tied in the standings. But the Reds, like the Cardinals, have a better run differential at plus-63, as well as No. 4 rankings in runs scored and ERA.

“We have to turn our game up to beat both St. Louis and Pittsburgh,” Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips was saying this week. “And we know we can.”

Right after the Reds, the Pirates visit another underachiever in the Nationals. Washington is five games out of the wild card, and if they or the surging Dodgers or anyone else rises up … look out above.

“There's a lot of teams like ours looking to make a move, and we're all looking up there at St. Louis and Pittsburgh,” Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said. “We know we've got a great chance to gain ground on the Pirates next week.”

Those kinds of chances will be all over what's shaping up as a pulse-pounding schedule for the Pirates: Twenty-four of the next 30 games are against contenders. Twenty-three of the final 69 are with the Cardinals or Reds, 14 against St. Louis alone. Six of the season's final nine are with the Reds.

Still looking forward to it all?

Still set to fully invest night after night at the ballpark or in front of your TV biting nails and barking at the dog?

If not, pull a lawn chair up to the curb for that ‘82' parade and enjoy.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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