Monday, April 6, 2015

NL Central rivals have eyes on the prize

After meeting in the 2013 National League Wild Card Game, the Pirates and Reds seemingly went in opposite directions.
The Pirates returned to the postseason last October. They reported to Pirate City this year with high expectations. They've become a popular pick among analysts, lauded for their Major League talent and organizational strength.
The Reds, meanwhile, fell to a fourth-place finish in the NL Central. The outside expectations are considerably lower. The Cardinals, Pirates and new-look Cubs command the division's spotlight. As a result, the Reds have almost been perceived as an afterthought despite having won 90-plus games in three of the past five seasons.
But the Rust Belt rivals will square off on Opening Day with a shared belief that an NL Central title is within their grasp.
Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano will take the mound opposite Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto at Great American Ball Park on Monday, with first pitch scheduled for 4:10 p.m. ET.
"We're optimistic about this year," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. "We're excited about competing. We're excited about our team and our guys."
It's an understandable sentiment, though the word "if" often factors into the Reds' equation. If their lineup remains healthy and intact, most important. If their top three starters -- Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake -- can carry the rest of the staff.
In other words, there won't be much margin for error for Cincinnati in what could be baseball's most competitive division.
"I don't want to say we have a chip on our shoulder, but as a group, we have a focus and realize we missed an opportunity last year," Votto said. "We don't want something like that to repeat itself."
Neither do the Pirates. Following their exit to the eventual World Series champion Giants, an NL Wild Card berth is no longer enough. The Bucs want to challenge the Cardinals for the NL Central crown.
They have the pieces in place, starting with Andrew McCutchen. He's the anchor of both their lineup and an outfield co-starring Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. The Bucs' roster is as deep as it has been in recent memory.
The question in Pittsburgh is no longer whether the Bucs can cobble together a winning season. Those days are behind them. Success breeds expectations, and the Pirates are ready to live up to them.
"We believe we have a team that's good enough to beat anybody. We just have to beat the team we play that day, to score one more run," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recently told "It should be a catfight. We'll see where the season takes us. We anticipate being there until the end, and our goal is to win the division."

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