CINCINNATI -- Major League Baseball's four-ring postseason circus just added a fifth ring. Coming before the main event in October will be the pre-show in late September.
The Pirates and the Reds are staging a mini-playoff at Great American Ball Park this weekend, a three-game series to determine who would host their likely matchup in the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
"We want to fight and take that Wild Card Game back home," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose team would have to sweep this weekend and hope for the Cardinals to be swept by the Cubs to have a shot at winning the NL Central.
The Reds want to keep the Wild Card Game right where the teams will spend the weekend.
"We need to play well against the Pirates," reliever Sam LeCure said. "Not only so we can secure home field for that Wild Card Game. We also want them to question whether they are able to beat us."
That question hasn't yet been raised on either side. The teams have split 16 meetings -- the foundation for this critical series. Whoever takes it gets the keys to Tuesday's game. The Pirates' one-game lead over the Reds does not matter, since two Reds wins to create a tie in the standings would give them hosting rights based on head-to-head play.
This is a throwback to Cincinnati's Big Red Machine days and to the We Are Family Pirates, teams that clashed in four NL Championship Series in the 1970s.
The stakes are immeasurable.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the NL Wild Card Game for the Pirates, and where he takes the mound could make a huge difference. He is 8-7 with an ERA of 4.33 on the road -- including 0-2 with a 6.10 ERA at Great American Ball Park -- and 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park.
Probable Cincinnati Wild Card Game starter Mat Latos' splits are not quite as dramatic, but still significant: The righty is 9-2 with a 2.77 ERA at home and 5-5 with a 3.48 ERA on the road -- including an ERA of 3.86 in three non-decision starts at PNC Park.
The matchups for this ultimate series start off intriguing and lead to compelling.
A.J. Burnett will square off against Homer Bailey on Friday night. Charlie Morton will duel Bronson Arroyo on Saturday afternoon.
If a split in those two leaves it all up to Sunday, rookie Gerrit Cole will take on Johnny Cueto. For Cole, who is 4-0 with an ERA of 1.69 in five September starts, it will be his first meeting with the Reds.
"We expect to beat those guys, just as those guys expect to beat us," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Honestly, as a team that's played well, you can't ask for anything more than having the destiny really up to you."
"It's fantastic. It's what you play for," Burnett said. "They're big games, but you've got to remember they're not the only games. I think we're OK with that in [the clubhouse], hope the fans keep that in mind, too."
After a very hot start, the Pirates have been a .500 team since August, but they have been very resilient at every challenging turn.
This season, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati became a matchup worthy of a rivalry. Six of the games have been decided by one run, and all but three of the 16 games were decided by three runs or fewer.
"We are going to hold our destiny in our hands," Latos said. "You look at the way we've played against Pittsburgh, it really hasn't been too great this season. Earlier in the year, there were a couple of blown saves and a couple where we played bad."
The Reds' and Pirates' pitching staffs have combined to hit 24 batters this season, which is third most between any two teams in the Majors. Shin-Soo Choo has been plunked six times for Cincinnati, while Starling Marte has been hit four times. Reds All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips was hit twice, including a June 1 plunking on the forearm on a Tony Watson fastball that put him out for four games.
As they were prior to the start of the teams' series last weekend at PNC Park, the umpiring crew will doubtless be cautioned about the possibility of the high-strung emotions in this rivalry boiling over.
That alert had led to warnings to both benches on Friday night after LeCure had hit Andrew McCutchen with a pitch -- which in turn led the Hurdle's ejection for arguing that rather than giving warnings to the benches, plate umpire Mark Carlson should have instead given the thumb to LeCure.
"It's going to be really exciting. I'm juiced. You're going to feel a little fall atmosphere," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said. "Hopefully it will be a packed house and a lot of craziness will happen, and we come out with victories."
"Absolutely, it's cool," Hurdle said. "You're blazing new trails, doing new things. We had a to-do list coming in, [and] have knocked down some. So much new territory covered, positive momentum, growth, maturity. [It is] wonderful, good for the fans, good for our players. It will be an exciting weekend, experience you can't get any other way."
Since these two teams had previously met in mid-July prior to getting reacquainted last weekend in Pittsburgh -- where the Reds took two of three -- their roster makeup had changed. The Pirates were frisky before the Aug. 31 waiver Deadline, adding bats in Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd.
Cincinnati made no trades, but it got run producer Ryan Ludwick back after four months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. The September roster expansion also brought top prospect and speed burner Billy Hamilton, who is 13-for-14 in steal attempts, with nine runs scored.
As far as regular-season games go, they don't get much bigger than the ones this weekend.
"Would you rather be up 10 games like we were last year? Sure," Frazier said. "But this gets you ready for the playoffs."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less