While the Pirates have performed well following the All-Star break, they have been no match for the Reds' torrid pace. As a result, the Reds have opened up a 3.5-game lead in the division race and currently own the best record in the National League.
This weekend's games are crucial for the Pirates and Reds as they enter the final third of the season. It's gut-check time in the NL Central, and we will learn a lot about both teams from their play this weekend.
Neither of these teams has faced an opponent who had a winning record at the time since the Reds completed their sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals on August 15.
This series marks a return to normal scheduling for both teams, as the Pirates and Reds spent much of July beating up on the dregs of the National League. Each team has several August series against other National League contenders in addition to potential spoilers such as the Brewers and Phillies.
The beneficial second-half schedule that enabled the Reds and Pirates to open up a significant lead in the Wild Card race will not fully disappear, as the Cubs and Astros remain in the division. But the road is about to get more challenging.
Both the Pirates and the Reds acquired significant new faces through trade or otherwise, and this series will be their first true test.
The Pirates were more active at the trade deadline, and their prized acquisition, Wandy Rodriguez, will be starting Friday's game. The spotlight in the series will also shine upon the Bucs' new outfield, as former Blue Jay Travis Snider and recently promoted Starling Marte will be expected to produce.
While the Reds had a quieter July, this series will likely represent Jonathan Broxton's return to big-game pitching. Ex-Pirate Xavier Paul will also look to maintain his hot start to the season against his former team.
After shuffling their rotation slightly, the Pirates should have the ideal pitching set-up for this series: Wandy Rodriguez starts Friday, James McDonald Saturday and A.J. Burnett Sunday.
Burnett has emerged as the Pirates' ace, and the Bucs will be very comfortable turning to him if Sunday's game is in fact the series' decider. Rodriguez has consistently pitched above average, and at the very least, should give the Pirates a solid chance to win Friday. Yet, McDonald is the enigma—a shell of the pitcher who dominated opposing offenses in the season's first half.
McDonald has experienced recurring control problems throughout his career, and they have resurfaced in his four starts since the All-Star break. He's still striking hitters out, but McDonald needs to rediscover his fastball command to give the Pirates the three-headed pitching monster they desire.
McDonald's start Saturday may go a long way toward determining whether the Pirates can trust him down the stretch.
The Reds made waves when they dealt several promising prospects to San Diego for starting pitcher Mat Latos in the offseason. Latos, an emerging ace for the Padres, was mean to shore up the top of the Reds' rotation.
While Cincinnati has had a tremendous season thus far, Latos has not performed up to expectations. His 4.30 FIP is that of a No. 3 or No. 4 starter and is more than a full turn higher than his 2010 and 2011 performances. It's fair to wonder how much he benefited from pitching in Petco Park.
Yet, series like these are the reasons the Reds traded for Latos: He will be starting Friday night against Rodriguez—a crucial opening to this matchup. If he can put up big performances in the right games, his 2012 struggles may be forgotten.
While the Pirates substantially strengthened their team at the trade deadline, parting with Brad Lincoln to acquire Travis Sinder has weakened the Pittsburgh bullpen.
Lincoln had emerged as a valuable bridge to Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan, capable of appearing in high-leverage situations or pitching multiple innings. His overall numbers as a reliever were fantastic, buoyed by a strong strikeout rate.
Compounding the issue a bit for the Bucs is that potential replacements Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux remain in Triple-A, leaving the back end of the Pirates' bullpen thin this weekend. All three games this weekend may very well be close, and any high-leverage situations are magnified in such a significant series. This weekend will be the first big test for the Pirates' new-look bullpen.
What has made the Reds' torrid July all the more impressive is that they have done most of their winning without any contribution from MVP candidate Joey Votto, who's recovering from knee surgery.
The Reds are 13-4 without Votto, relying on contributions from unheralded players like Todd Frazier and Xavier Paul. As the Pirates learned all too quickly last season, players who are punching above their weight can come crashing down to earth quickly when facing top competition.
John Fay, via cincinnati.com, reports that Cincinnati also expects to be without second baseman Brandon Phillips this weekend, though, he may be available to pinch-hit. The Pirates would be wise to take advantage of a battered foe.
Andrew McCutchen has justifiably received a tremendous amount of attention this season while leading the Pirates into the heart of the playoff race. His MVP candidacy can pick up even more steam with a strong showing this weekend.
While there will be no showdown with Joey Votto this weekend, all eyes will still be on this series. Games should be tight, and McCutchen will have a chance to lift his team above the fray.
Great players play their best in big games. This weekend is another chance for McCutchen to remind everyone just how great he is.