COMMENTARY | St. Louis Cardinals fans by now are used to making the postseason, but the opponent still came as a surprise to many.
To the absolute thrill of Steel City baseball fans, the Pittsburgh Pirates made the postseason for the first time since 1992. It will take a lot to erase the memories of Sid Bream sliding safe into home plate and sending the Atlanta Braves to the World Series -- a moment that began 21 years of being in the baseball wilderness for the Pirates -- but the fact Pittsburgh made the postseason shows how much this team has grown.
Here are some things to watch for when the National League Division Series gets underway on Thursday:
Game 1 Pitchers
The Cardinals start out the series with Adam Wainwright pitching against A.J. Burnett as Burnett makes his first postseason start since Game 4 of the 2011 American League Division Series. His 3.30 earned run average matched a season low and he struck out over 200 batters. Burnett's biggest foe may be Cardinals OF Carlos Beltran, who has a .357 batting average, two homers and 11 runs batted in his career against Burnett.
The Cardinals are going with Wainwright and Lance Lynn to start out, but, after that, the rotation grows mysterious. Even the Pirates do not have a starter past the first game. Manager Mike Matheny has indicated Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha could see turns on the mound, with the odd man out among the three top NLDS pitchers likely to see bullpen work.
Home Run Cooking
For having a solid roster that was the second-leading team in the National League in hitting at .269, the Cardinals were third from the bottom in home runs at 125. Beltran (24 homers) and Matt Holliday (22) guide the team in long balls. The Pirates were third at 161 homers, led by Pedro Alvarez (36) and Andrew McCutchen (21)
The Pirates proved solid players like Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau could provide a lift in October. When these players were acquired, regular starters like Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata were relegated to bench duty. Although Byrd and Morneau start, Pittsburgh has a deeper bench of starters and reserves.
The Cardinals have a solid bench, but Allen Craig's foot injury has resulted in Matt Adams going up to starter duty. Capable players like Pete Kozma, Kolten Wong and Shane Robinson are also on the bench.
The Cardinals have had bullpen issues as of late as Edward Mujica was removed from the closer role in the final games of the season. Trevor Rosenthal and Randy Choate have gotten the job done, but the Pirates' punch of Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon could be a killer if Pittsburgh can score runs.
Aside from a memorable 2007 baseball season in Colorado, manager Clint Hurdle has had little luck when it comes to postseason play. He has gotten the job done with these players, however. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has also proven capable of managing the starters and reserves with similar skill.
Pittsburgh's players showed no rust or scare in their postseason debut on Tuesday, and that could be a plus for the Pirates. The Cardinals have playoff heroes like David Freese and Carlos Beltran in their midst, so St. Louis gets the edge here.
The teams played 19 games during the regular season. Which team won? It wasn't St. Louis. Pittsburgh held a 10-9 edge during the 2013 meetings and won seven of 10 games played at PNC Park. At Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were 6-3. Home cooking certainly had its benefits.
If you caught Tuesday's game at PNC Park, the Pirates fans may be a wild card. They were certainly loud and raucous in that first playoff game in 21 years and the noise level will be no different in the NLDS. St. Louis fans are just as passionate at Busch, and that makes for two rowdy fan bases.
If Pittsburgh scores early against the strong St. Louis pitching, that could tip the series toward the Pirates. Having an injured Craig sitting on the bench doesn't help the Cardinals.
All told, this series has the makings of a classic. It could go the full five games, and the winner is not easy to predict. Get set for a raucous NLDS on Thursday.
Steve Ungrey is a freelance writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as a dedicated lover of Major League Baseball and follower of the St. Louis Cardinals. He may be the only person in Michigan willing to root for the Cardinals over his state's team, the Detroit Tigers.
- Sports & Recreation
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Carlos Beltran
- Adam Wainwright