The Pittsburgh Pirates are still holding out hope that they can win the NL Central, but they know they'll at least host one postseason game again in October.
By continuing to push for the division, they may wind up taking their top starter out of the equation for that contest.Francisco Liriano tries to keep the Pirates in the running for the Central on Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds in an outing Pittsburgh hopes isn't his final trip to the mound in 2014.The Pirates (88-72) know a potential wild-card game with San Francisco on Wednesday will be in Pittsburgh since the Giants lost to San Diego after Clint Hurdle's club beat Cincinnati 3-1 on Friday.The Pirates could find themselves playing Monday in St. Louis as well in a tiebreaker to decide the Central, but for now remain a game behind the Cardinals, who won at Arizona.By pitching Liriano (7-10, 3.32 ERA) in his regular turn Saturday, the left-hander would have to come back on three days' rest should the Pirates ask him to start the wild-card game. He's only done that twice in his career, though the most recent time worked out rather well. A two-run homer was the only hit he allowed over seven innings in a 5-3 win over Minnesota for the Chicago White Sox in September 2012.He's looked even better on four and five days of rest this month. Liriano has won all four September starts while allowing one total run in 26 innings after shutting down Atlanta for six innings Monday in a 1-0 victory.If there's been an issue, it's been his control. Liriano has walked nine over 12 innings in his last two outings. He's thrown exactly 200 pitches in those games, just 108 for strikes."He was underneath a lot of counts," Hurdle said after the win against the Braves.After beating them in last season's wild-card game, Liriano is 0-2 with a 4.32 ERA in four starts against the Reds (74-86) in 2014.This time, he'll see a Cincinnati team that's hardly at full strength. Out since July 5, Joey Votto has been taking batting practice but isn't likely to play this weekend. Billy Hamilton isn't expected to play in this series due to a concussion, and Devin Mesoraco missed Friday's game with sore ribs but could return Saturday.All-Star Alfredo Simon (15-10, 3.34) will try to close his most successful season in the majors on a positive note. After going 1-7 with a 5.27 ERA in his first 10 starts after the Midsummer Classic, the right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last three after holding St. Louis to two runs over six innings Sunday in a 7-2 road win.It's the fourth straight start Simon got more outs on the ground than in the air."My two-seam fastball was working and they were hitting it to the ground," Simon said. "That felt good."After allowing five runs over 13 innings in beating the Pirates twice before the break, one fly ball doomed him at PNC Park on Aug. 30. Neil Walker's three-run homer in the bottom of the first held up in Pittsburgh's 3-2 win, though Simon settled down to allow just one hit over his final six innings.Russell Martin doubled in the first that day against Simon -- his only hit in 11 at-bats in their matchups -- but he left Friday's contest after aggravating a hamstring injury on a check-swing in the seventh."Some days are better than others, and (Friday) it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose," Hurdle said.Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison, meanwhile, extended his hitting streak to 14 games with an eighth-inning single.The Cincinnati native, hitting .366 against his hometown team this season, is one percentage point behind Colorado's Justin Morneau (.319) in the race for the NL batting title.
Ramon Santiago's walk-off grand slam was the first for the Reds since Joey Votto did it on May 13, 2012. However, it was their first one in extra innings since Frank Robinson hit one to beat the Dodgers at Crosley Field on August 20, 1962.
The NL Central is still on the line tomorrow for the Cardinals and Pirates. The Pirates last division title came in 1992, or before there was even an NL Central. Since the creation of the NL Central, the Cardinals have 22 times as many playoff wins as the Buccos.