My, how things have changed.
The Reds ran away with the National League Central and clinched last Saturday. The Pirates, meanwhile, have struggled to a 16-36 record in the season's final two months, and once again they will be on the outside of the postseason looking in.
Now, the primary goal in Cincinnati is staying hot heading into the postseason, but the Reds are also fighting for playoff positioning. After Washington's win on Thursday night, the Reds trail the Nats by a game for the NL's best record.
A.J. Burnett gets the ball for Pittsburgh in Friday's opener at PNC Park, looking to throw a wrench into the Reds' quest for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Burnett (16-8, 3.53 ERA) was brilliant in his last start, tossing eight innings of one-run ball while allowing just four hits.
"He was in complete control from start to finish," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Really good rhythm and tempo, had one of his best breaking balls of the year. His fastball command was spot-on. He was working ahead, putting people away. I also like the fact he retired 14 guys on three pitches or less."
Getting to Burnett would appear to be a tall task for several Reds hitters who have struggled mightily recently. Brandon Phillips (5-for-43), Scott Rolen (6-for-43), Chris Heisey (4-for-39) and Jay Bruce (8-for-54) are all mired in slumps, but Bruce doesn't see much cause for concern.
"It's always important to just be as prepared as you can. Baseball is a game of ups and downs," Bruce said. "We're going to be fine. ... We haven't played as well as we can of late, but I am completely confident that we will."
Right-hander Homer Bailey (12-10, 3.92 ERA) gets the ball for the Reds after he surrendered five runs in 6 2/3 frames against the Dodgers his last time out.
Reds: Ludwick still out
Left fielder Ryan Ludwick has missed a week because of tightness in his left groin. Because the Reds have already clinched the NL Central, they are in no rush to bring him back.
"I want to make sure I'm right before I go out there, because I don't want it to be wrong for the next month," said Ludwick, who is hitting .276 this season with 26 homers. "I feel like I'm right around the corner. I still feel a little bit in there. I don't feel it's smart with the situation we're in to push it."
It's possible Ludwick could return to the lineup this weekend in Pittsburgh.
Pirates: Walker to see specialist
Second baseman Neil Walker is set to see a specialist on Friday to evaluate the progress with his lower back injury. The appointment is not in response to a new problem, however.
There is still no word as to when or if Walker will be able to return to the Bucs' lineup.
"We're still evaluating, working through that," Hurdle said. "We're trying to make sure we get the right diagnosis. We also have to stay connected to the player, listen to what he has to say."
Of the 12 Reds with more than five at-bats against Burnett, none are hitting above .250.
All of the Pirates' six remaining games are at home. They went 34-47 on the road this season.
In the last 21 games, the Reds' bullpen has posted a 2.00 ERA. On the season, they lead the Majors in bullpen ERA.