The MLB schedule-makers could see without too much difficulty what the likely division contenders would be, and at least in the NL west and central, they arranged for them to play head to head in the penultimate series of the season.
But even as recently as last week, it looked like neither the Pirates-Cardinals nor the Dodgers-Giants sets would really mean anything. But as each of them begins, they do.
More so for the Pirates. Though they lost Sunday, so did St. Louis, and the Bucs remain just 3 back, with the 3 game series coming up at home. They got extra motivation on Sunday, when their 8 game winning streak was broken by Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who took a perfect game into the 7th, and wound up giving up just 1 hit (and a hit batsman.) Arrieta used the Krupe formula for a win: pitch a shutout and hit a home run.
In the wild card game, the Pirates would likely face him again. Even playing at home, they would be underdogs. That's not the only reason they'd rather be division champs, but it seems like a big one.
In the West it looked increasingly like the division would be settled by the time the Dodgers came to San Francisco--and it almost is, but not totally. So mathematically at least, these four games mean something. And the last time the Dodgers came in, they got swept in consecutive shutouts.
What adds even more spice to this was how the Dodgers got swept in Colorado. In Sunday's game, they didn't start any of their regular starters. They pretty much threw the game (and were soundly beaten.) There are a couple of interpretations of this. First, they did it to rest their players. This has been a trendy concept this year, and the Pirates have seemingly turned it into a science: paying attention to resting players and pitchers for the final push. It's worked for the Pirates in their 8 game mid to late September winning streak. It's probably something more teams will take even more seriously next year.
But the second (and not mutually exclusive) possibility is that they wanted to hold off clinching until they could do it in San Francisco. The rivalry is bitter enough to make that possible, and maybe the Dodgers have felt their annual humiliation as they watched the Giants hoist their world championship trophies. The Giants were humiliated on the field in their last trip to L.A. The Dodgers perhaps want more: they want to kill the season of the defending world champs in their own home yard. Not exactly a class move, but then we are talking about the Dodgers.
Back to Pittsburgh: fans there are rabid, frenzied, totally loyal, and also prone to anger and despair. Sunday's Pirates game doubtless spread anxiety as well as depression. But that wasn't the only such event. The Steelers won their game against St. Louis, but Big Ben went down with an injury that is likely to keep him out for a month if not longer.
Now I wonder how the much criticized in the burgh acquisition of Michael Vick is faring among fans. For Vick stepped in and did a credible job. Even if he can't move as well as he used to, he still has the advantage of also being a mobile quarterback like Ben, so even if the Steelers must depend more on their running game--which should be pretty formidable, with not one but two of the league's best runners--his mobility and passing ability should keep the defenses from teeing off on the run.
But it should remind the city and the team that so far they have no future beyond Big Ben, who cannot play forever. They don't have, and don't seem to care about having, a young quarterback they can develop. Maybe that's not how it's done in the NFL anymore, but I do remember the many, many lost years after Terry Bradshaw. They were painful.
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