Tuesday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers kick off a three-game series in Pittsburgh. Whoever wins the opener is still in the hunt for a postseason berth, whoever loses is essentially dead, and if you predicted this state of affairs when looking at the schedule last winter you're entitled to a kewpie doll.
Why is this game so important? Because the Pirates and Brewers are tied in the Wild Card standings, and after this series only one of them (at most) can still be standing. Here's how this thing breaks down ...
First Principle: The Pirates are just as good as the Brewers. Based on underlying performances and abilities, the Brewers are probably four or five games better than the Pirates. But at this point in the season, a four- or five-game difference is almost exactly the same as zero difference.
Second Principle: Forget about the Dodgers. For the Brewers or Pirates to have a real shot, both the Cardinals and the Dodgers have to play somewhat poorly the rest of the way. The Cardinals are loaded, and the better club to boot. The Dodgers are missing their two best starting pitchers. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't play well, but if you're pulling for the Brew Crew or the Buccos, you have to take some things on faith. And this is among the easiest.
Third Principle: Assuming Second Principle, it follows that Cardinals are the team to beat. Unfortunately, the Cardinals are pretty good and they've got that pesky 2½-games lead over the Brewers and Bucs. At this point in the season, 2½. Yes, it can disappear in 72 hours. But it can also turn into the Blob in 72 hours, and leave its foes quivering in despair. What's more likely, of course, is neither. What's more likely is that 72 hours later, it's still 2½ or maybe 3½, which doesn't help at all.
Fourth Principle: Every game is precious. There aren't any must-win games, yet. But there are some probably-should-win games, and they start tonight for both teams.
Now, putting all those together, we then assume ...
The Brewers and Pirates need some help from the Cardinals and the teams playing the Cardinals. Unfortunately for the Brewers and the Pirates, they don't get to help themselves on this score, as neither has any games left against the Cardinals, who play (in order) three games against the Astros, three games in Chicago, three games in Houston, three games against the Nationals, and three games against the Reds.
Not a lot of obvious help there. Frankly, what's most likely is that the Cardinals absolutely clean up against the Astros and Cubs, winning six or seven of those nine games. Which would make things exceptionally difficult for any challengers. Yes, they also finish with six games against first-place teams ... but those first-place teams will have clinched their division titles, and might well be resting some of their best players. Gotta figure Cardinals win four of those six games, if they still need to. So that's 10 wins in their last 15 games. Yikes. That won't do at all.
But that's why the Brewers or Pirates need to sweep their series against one another this week; just winning two of three won't be a real victory at all. The Brewers finish with four games in Washington, three in Cincinnati, and finally three at home against the Astros and three more against the Padres. Those first seven are going to be a bitch, with neither Nationals nor the Reds in full tune-up mode yet. The Pirates finish with three games in Houston, four in New York, then three at home against the Reds and three more against the Braves. In contrast, the Pirates should benefit somewhat from their tough competition looking ahead to the postseason. Which is why I like the Pirates' chances just slightly more than the Brewers'.
None of that math will probably matter much, though. Not if the Cardinals do what they should do.