Transport yourself one month into the future. The Pirates will be preparing for their final series of the regular season. And if you believe the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the Pirates will have positioned themselves to have a 1 in 4 chance of being on the precipice of the playoffs.
Who will the Pirates be facing for the opportunity to go to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years? None other than the team that both literally and symbolically sent the Pirates on this long odyssey through the desert of baseball’s landscape — the Atlanta Braves. When I was at opening day this year, a girl at our tailgate mentioned that her favorite player was Chipper Jones. She wanted to see him one last time and wondered when the Braves were coming to Pittsburgh. After looking it up and seeing it was the last series of the season, we jokingly said that there would be plenty of good seats available for that one.
As it stands now, barring an unforeseen collapse, that final series will have oodles of potential meaning for the Pirates. There is a good chance that the Pirates will still be mathematically fighting for a wild card spot, if not outright controlling one of them, so these games will be important for them in the baseball aspect. However, just as importantly perhaps, will be the opportunity to purge the demons that have haunted this franchise since 1992 by making the playoffs through the act of winning games against the Atlanta Braves.
As of this writing, the Braves are leading the wild card chase by 3-1/2 games over the Cardinals and 4-1/2 over the Pirates. But as witnessed last year, the Braves are capable of spectacularly choking down the stretch. There is a non-zero possibility that the final series of the 2012 season may come down to a battle between the Pirates and the Braves for the final wild card spot. Imagine savoring the chance to have the Pirates knock the Braves out of a playoff race while simultaneously ensuring that they make the playoffs. All of the ghosts of Jose Lind, Stan Belinda, Barry Bonds, Sid Bream, and Francisco Cabrera could be exorcised in one fell swoop under that scenario.
But what of the flip side to that argument? What if the Pirates and Braves are battling for the final playoff spot and it is the Braves that knock the Pirates out of the 2012 playoffs? Imagine the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing that would ensue if the hated Braves broke the hearts of the fanbase of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club for a 2nd time. This year is unlike 1992, of course, in that the 2012 Pirates are already playing with house money, while the 1992 Pirates were on the short list to win the World Series throughout the whole season and had a star-studded roster. But it would still fiercely sting to fall short of the playoffs at the hands of the team from General Sherman’s favorite vacation spot.
The fact that this even exists as a possibility, positively or negatively, is unbelievable for those that have suffered through lo these many years. It will be fascinating to see how the City would rally around the team if that final series of the season does have implications for the Pirates’ playoff chances.