The Pirates clinched their first playoff berth since 1992 on Monday night -- certainly an impressive accomplishment for a once-tortured franchise.
But the National League Central title still hangs in the balance, as the Pirates are set to take the field for the second of three games against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night.
Trailing the Cardinals by two games and in a dead heat with the Reds, the Pirates find themselves in an intense fight for the division title and the trip to the National League Division Series that goes along with it. The second- and third-place finishers will play in a win-or-go-home Wild Card Game, slated for Oct. 1.
The Pirates' success this season against the Cubs bodes well for their NL Central hopes. Their 11 wins against Chicago are the club's most since 1991, and one more victory against the North Siders would be the Pirates' most in a season since they reeled off 14 in '90.
Right-hander Gerrit Cole (9-7, 3.23 ERA) takes the mound for Pittsburgh, coming off a 12-strikeout performance against San Diego on Thursday that put him within six K's of 100 in his rookie season. Cole has been solid on the road, having posted a 2.29 ERA with a 0.89 WHIP away from PNC Park.
Left-hander Chris Rusin (2-5, 3.52 ERA) gets the ball for the Cubs, making his second start this month against the Pirates. In a loss on Sept. 12, Rusin looked very sharp. He needed just 79 pitches to get through seven innings and allowed two runs on four hits.
But he's coming off a start in which he allowed six runs and two homers and lasted just four innings against the Brewers on Wednesday. Then, he turned the ball over to a Cubs bullpen that has been in flux for most of the season. Only two Chicago pitchers have been in the 'pen the entire year -- James Russell and Rule 5 Draft pick Hector Rondon.
Manager Dale Sveum said he's envious of the consistency of the Pirates' bullpen.
"Bullpens, for everyone, is very hit or miss, and you're very lucky to keep them all healthy," Sveum said. "... Their bullpen is the best in baseball and has been constantly from Day 1.
"They have two power lefties who go through righties and lefties, and their right-handers get all the left-handers out, which is a nice asset to have. That's the perfect world. I think any general manager or anybody will tell you it's the hardest thing to build on a year-to-year basis."
Pirates: Martin returns
Catcher Russell Martin was back in the lineup Monday after he left Sunday's game with left-knee discomfort.
"He's good enough to play," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He wants to play. We had a chat, and he said he feels good. I trust our guys."
Martin is hitting .230 with 15 home runs after going 1-for-3 on Monday.
Cubs: Schierholtz thriving
If Nate Schierholtz plays in each of the Cubs' five remaining games this year, he'll equal a career high in games played. That consistent playing time has helped the Chicago outfielder, who's earned career bests in home runs (21), doubles (30) and RBIs (68).
"He's that guy you dream of as a manager," Sveum said. "You don't have to worry about him, you don't have to worry about him playing hard. He's played with some nagging stuff. He's picked us up and had a really nice year."
• The Pirates' pitching staff has posted a 2.19 ERA against the Cubs this season.
• With two more extra-base hits, Anthony Rizzo would become the Cubs' first left-handed hitter to reach 65 since Mark Grace in 1999.
• Andrew McCutchen has a double and a homer in seven at-bats against Rusin.