The next three weeks will determine whether the Pittsburgh Pirates make the playoffs.
The schedule is packed full of teams that are leading their division or in close contention for the postseason. It is full of three-game series with teams like the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
Those teams are a combined 33 games over .500, with the only soft spot being the Reds, who are currently one game under .500 but by no means out of the playoff hunt.
The Pirates play each of the teams listed above in a three-game series except for the Cardinals, who play the Bucs six times. That means the next 18 games are against formidable foes, all with a horse in the race for the playoffs.
The tough schedule comes at a horrible time for the team, currently maligned with injuries to star Andrew McCutchen and solid second baseman Neil Walker. That’s not to mention Pedro Alvarez.
Notwithstanding, the Pirates bats have continued to come alive, despite the absence of the team's best hitters. Pittsburgh is 5-5 without McCutchen, who will be on the disabled list until at least Aug. 19.
Despite the injuries and tough schedule, Baseball Prospectus still gives the Pirates a 56 percent chance of making the playoffs. The website also predicts the team will finish with 85 wins when the dust settles.
The most important of these next 18 games are the games against division foes Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Bucs are currently looking up in the standings at both teams, despite being out of first place by only 2.5 games. In that timespan, they play six games with the Cardinals and three with the Brewers, teams they are a combined 9-17 against this season. Two out of three of those series are on the road.
Thankfully, those division rivalries don't happen for another week. The Pirates have other contenders to deal with first.
Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects illustrated the point that the Pirates still have their work cut out for them before those division rivalries start Aug. 22:
There are six games remaining each against the Brewers and Cardinals, and those games could go a long way to deciding the NL Central race and the Wild Card order. The first of those games will start next weekend, but before that happens, the Pirates have to go up against one of the best teams in the NL — the Nationals — along with trying to capitalize on the struggling Braves.
The Pirates last year at this time were 23 games above .500 and winning the National League Central by three games. Clearly, this isn't last year. The Pirates are clinging to the second wild-card spot by half a game over the San Francisco Giants, with Atlanta and Cincinnati close behind.
The fate of these 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates lies in the outcome of the next three weeks. Let’s hope the offense keeps ticking and the pitching staff can silence some of the best teams in the National League.