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Already-in Pirates sense something special about almost-in Cubs

"They're a good team," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the Cubs. "There’s no doubt it’s the most competitive team that I’ve seen from them in quite some time." AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

CHICAGO -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have already made it to the postseason after clinching a wild-card spot in Colorado, and they’re riding a six-game winning streak. But they’ve come to Chicago to face a Cubs team that is a game away from doing likewise -- against their likely opponent in the one-shot play-in game that a wild-card invite gets you after 162 games.

It adds a bit of obvious drama in what’s already becoming yet another charged-up rivalry in the NL Central, which features three of the four best records in baseball. But it also is one that has perhaps a different tenor than, say, Cubs vs. Cardinals. They’ll have played 19 head-to-head regular-season games after this weekend’s series; the Pirates and Cubs are likely to be playing an elimination game in their 20th. It’s a remarkable turn of events for two teams long associated with losing, something the Pirates changed in 2013, when they ended their 20-year losing streak with a return to the postseason. The Cubs' frustrations stretch back more than a century.

“You’d have to be blind not to see it,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said about the energy in Chicago around this Cubs team. “They’re a good team, there’s no doubt it’s the most competitive team that I’ve seen from them in quite some time. I went back in the day when they actually had good teams as well -- this is an exciting team.”

“I think it was a work in progress the years before, when the new front office came over, that had direction, that had purpose,” Hurdle added. “Everybody has direction and purpose, no matter how it plays out. Nobody ever shows up on a new job and says, ‘You know what, let me wake up and see how I can screw things up.’ They have a very fertile and solid foundation to their team, that have skills. They’ve created a pitching staff that has experience and went about that a couple of different ways.”

Of course, there’s another source of potential rivalry involving these two teams, which is between Hurdle and the man in the other dugout, Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Both are leading candidates in what’s sure to be the most interesting NL Manager of the Year vote in years.

Hurdle’s Pirates have the second-best record in baseball and a 3.5-game lead on the Cubs, but both teams have exceptional records relative to their expected wins. The Pirates are five games better than their runs scored and allowed would suggest, while the Cubs are six games better. And both teams have outstanding records in one-run games. Some might call that luck, but it also suggests both teams have reaped the benefit of good managers getting good results from their in-game gambits.

If there’s supposed to be an element of competition between the two men in the dugouts that goes beyond what you see in the standings, Hurdle wasn’t sharing.

“You know you need to be prepared [managing against Maddon],” Hurdle blandly noted. “I like the fact that he’s engaging, I believe he cares, he’s had success, and for all the right reasons, but outside of that, that’s a topic I don’t sit down and think a lot about.

“The one thing I don’t put a lot of stock is me managing against the manager,” Hurdle said. “I think a lot of other people make a lot out of that, but I don’t think it plays out the way people want it to. I need to know the personnel that they have. I need to know what their players’ skill sets are. I need to know what ours are, their tendencies, when they hit-and-run, steal, do they like to safety squeeze, all that kind of information, not manager-against-manager so much. I think that gets overplayed.”

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.