3 to Watch: The 'Meaningful games in August' edition

You hear it all the time from losing teams.

They just want to start playing meaningful games in September. The Pirates haven't done it in 15 years, and there's still no guarantee that they'll do it this year, either.

But at least we can say with certainty that they'll play meaningful games in August -- more meaningful, in fact, than any August game they've played in 15 years.

It's a start.

Last year, the Pirates played meaningful games in July, so much so that they were tied for first place for two days late in the month. But they were 4 1/2 games out by the time September began, and by the time they visited the first-place Brewers on Aug. 12, they were 10 1/2 games back and no longer much of a threat.

The Pirates are 3 1/2 games out right now, but they go to Cincinnati this weekend with a chance to make up some (or even most) of that ground against the first-place Reds. If they want September to be meaningful, they can't let opportunities like this slip away.

After this weekend, the Pirates won't see the Reds again until Sept. 10. Between now and then, the Reds have eight games with the Cubs and three with the Astros.

It's not that the Reds are guaranteed to win those games, or that the Pirates won't be able to stay in the race if they don't beat the Reds head-to-head. But you have to figure it won't be easy.

The Pirates understand that by now. Over the last 34 days, they've gone 22-9 -- and lost half a game to the Reds in the standings.

The Pirates have already played well enough to convince fans to start showing up to PNC Park (they're averaging 33,373 for their last 11 home dates). They've played well enough to convince ownership and the front office to add at the trade deadline (the Pirates made four additions, including Wandy Rodriguez, who starts Friday's series opener against the Reds).

Now they just need to play well enough to stay in the race.

They're not yet playing meaningful games in September.

But meaningful games in August aren't bad.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The White Sox made three nice trades over the last five weeks. They missed out on the one they wanted most. The Sox can't complain, but they can wonder what-if when they face Zack Greinke in Angels at White Sox, Friday night (8:10 ET) at U.S. Cellular Field. The White Sox may well be able to hold off the Tigers without Greinke, especially if Francisco Liriano pitches well. But a Greinke deal -- and yes, the White Sox tried -- might have changed some feelings about the American League Central race.

2. The Braves missed out on a trade they wanted, too, when Ryan Dempster said no (or at least never said yes). But Braves people insist they weren't heartbroken, and in fact that Dempster wasn't on the top of their July wish-list. They didn't mind the deal that they eventually did make, and will like it more if Paul Maholm pitches well in Astros at Braves, Saturday night (7:10 ET) at Turner Field. Maholm can't complain about debuting against the Astros, who one rival scout described as "a Double-A team" after their mass-unloading of the last few weeks.

3. How do you know the Pirates are playing a meaningful series? Because they've switched their rotation to make sure their best pitcher appears in it. They'll take advantage of an off-day to skip Erik Bedard and instead start A.J. Burnett in Pirates at Reds, Sunday afternoon (1:10 ET) at Great American Ballpark. Burnett threw a one-hit shutout in his last start, but that was against the Cubs, who are only slightly better than the Astros. The start against the Reds will be his most important since he left New York for Pittsburgh last winter.

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