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Here we are in early August, and once again, the Pittsburgh Pirates are relevant in a playoff race. This time last season, the Bucs had surprised all of Major League Baseball with their surprising first half run, only to begin their downfall beginning in late July on their way to a 72-90 record and yet another losing season.

But this year has been different. The Pirates have hit road blocks and dry spells and hitting slumps, but they’ve been able to bounce back and put together strings of wins to help them keep pace in their division and in the National League. It’s August 3, and the Pirates are 60-44 on the season and have one of the best records in all of baseball. Yet they are still 3.5 games behind the white-hot Cincinnati Reds in the N.L. Central.

The Reds have the best record in baseball, and they’re the hottest team playing right now. They have a 17-3 record since the All Star break, and are scoring droves of runs nearly every time out on the field. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their run is that they’ve done it without Joey Votto, and most recently, Brandon Phillips. Guys like Ryan Ludwick and Drew Stubbs continue to pace the offense, while a continuously improving bullpen has made it excruciatingly difficult for opposing teams to mount any type of comeback in the late innings. Yes, this is the best team in baseball right now.

This is the biggest series of the Pirates’ season thus far, drawing comparisons to last year’s series in July against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. The Bucs lost two of the three games that weekend, and after trips to Atlanta and Philadelphia, the rest of the season went downhill from there. But like we said…this year is different, and as many teams continue to find out, this is not the same Pittsburgh Pirates. This team is for real.

Andrew McCutchen won the N.L. Player of the Month honor for the second straight month, while Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker are becoming more productive each game. Starling Marte continues to prove himself in the leadoff spot, while newcomers Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez will look to contribute as they get acclimated into the lineup.

A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens are the two top-performing starters in the rotation at this point, while the wildly inconsistent Erik Bedard and suddenly-struggling James McDonald are gambles every time they take the mound. Wandy Rodriguez, who will take the mound tonight in his second start for the Pirates, will hopefully put up the numbers equal to his career averages this year, which is why the Bucs brought him on board in the first place.

This is sure to be a highly competitive series, one that both teams realize is much bigger than just a three-game weekend set in early August.

[box_dark] “I’m going to give you something real generic. We’ll be there on time and we’ll be ready to play. We’re not in such a hurry to process all of this information. We’ve just won this series. We’ll travel. We’ll get there.” [/box_dark]
Clint Hurdle on this weekend’s series against the Cincinnati Reds

[box_dark] “This is a good team here. I’m happy to be a part of it. Going from last place to first is a big jump.” [/box_dark]
Jonathan Broxton on being traded to the Reds from Kansas City

Pitching Matchups:

8/3 – Wandy Rodriguez (PIT) (7-9, 3.82 ERA, 94 K, 37 BB, WHIP 1.30) vs. Mat Latos (CIN) (9-3, 4.17 ERA, 117 K, 40 BB, WHIP 1.24)

8/4 – James McDonald (PIT) (10-5, 3.38 ERA, 115 K, 50 BB, WHIP 1.18) vs. Mike Leake (CIN) (4-7, 4.44 ERA, 79 K, 28 BB, WHIP 1.35)

8/5 – A.J. Burnett (PIT) (13-3, 3.27 ERA, 102 K, 37 BB, WHIP 1.19) vs. Homer Bailey (CIN) (9-6, 3.85 ERA, 97 K, 37 BB, WHIP 1.33)

The Pirates enter this series trailing the first place Reds by 3.5 games. Regardless of what happens this weekend, the Bucs will still be in second place on Sunday, but this is a huge test for a team that has been defying the odds and proving doubters wrong all year. Game on.

Be sure to check back here for the latest recaps and reactions to each and every Pirates game from us, the Fans From The Stands!

And…

As Always…

Let’s Go Bucs!