The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals played leapfrog atop the NL Central standings for most of the season's final three months. Now they’ll settle things once and for all in what figures to be a thrilling best-of-five NLDS beginning Thursday afternoon in St. Louis.
The Pirates earned the right to play St. Louis after their 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL wild card game. That officially marked their first postseason victory since 1992. But now the Pirates embark on their first true postseason series since falling to the Atlanta Braves in the memorable seven-game NLCS. For St. Louis, it's a much different story as they make their fourth postseason appearance in the past five seasons.
• Game 1: Thursday at 5:07 p.m. ET in St. Louis. (TV coverage on TBS)
• Game 2: Friday at 1:07 p.m. ET in St. Louis. (MLB Network)
• Game 3: Sunday, time TBA, in Pittsburgh (TBS)
• Game 4*: Monday, time TBA, in Pittsburgh (TBS or MLB Network)
• Game 5*: Wednesday, time TBA, in St. Louis (TBS)
* if necessary
• Game 1: A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30) vs. Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94)
• Game 2: Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22) vs. Lance Lynn (15-10, 3.97)
• Game 3: Francisco Liriano (17-8, 2.95 ERA) vs. Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA)
• Game 4: Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.26 ERA) vs. TBA
• Game 5: Burnett vs. TBA
The Game 1 matchup should be interesting as it features two veterans with 11 postseason starts between them. Wainwright has been mostly untouchable in his postseason career— which includes nine relief appearances — save for his Game 3 blow up against the Washington Nationals in last season's NLDS. His postseason ERA is 2.48. There could be some extra pressure on Burnett with 23-year-old rookie Gerrit Cole scheduled to pitch Game 2. Though Cole has impressed, throwing at least six innings in each of his last eight starts, you never quite know what you'll get from a rookie. The Cardinals haven't fully named their NLDS rotation. Joe Kelly looks probable for Game 3. Skipper Mike Matheny still has rookies Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller awaiting NLDS assignments too.
Pittsburgh won the season series 10-9, but was swept in their final regular season series in St. Louis on Sept. 6-8. St. Louis outscored Pittsburgh 26-10 in the series that ultimately launched them to the NL Central crown.
THREE KEYS FOR THE PIRATES
• Win one in St. Louis: That's easier said than done, of course, but falling behind 0-2 with Adam Wainwright looming a second time and Game 5 at Busch Stadium would present a daunting task. On the other hand, Pittsburgh went 7-3 against St. Louis at PNC Park, so a split would have them feeling pretty good heading home with Francisco Liriano set up to pitch in Game 3.
• Shut down Cardinals veterans: In the postseason, it seems like St. Louis always gets contributions from an unlikely sources. (see: David Freese and Allen Craig in years past). That makes it even more important to keep veterans such as Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday in check. If several spots in the St. Louis are heating up, it'll be big trouble.
• Play Pirates baseball: One bit of wisdom that manager Clint Hurdle told his team before their wild -card win: The game they're playing never changes, and they can't let their mental approach change either. Stay even keeled. Play clean defense. Move base runners when necessary. Simply be the Pirates they've been all season, because that approach has worked.
THREE KEYS FOR THE CARDINALS
• Rosenthal and the rookies: The Cardinals bullpen went through a major change late in September when Edward Mujica was removed from the closer's role. A team never wants to enter the postseason with turmoil, specifically at the back end of its bullpen, but new closer Trevor Rosenthal can make life easier if he pitches up to his potential. Rosenthal will be joined in the 'pen by five other rookies to open the NLDS, including usual starters Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. The group will be rounded out by Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness.
• Do damage early: The Cardinals bullpen is short on experience and the one clear advantage Pittsburgh has is its bench depth. With Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata and backup catcher John Buck all on-call, manager Clint Hurdle has several options that are capable of turning the game around with one big swing. The best way for St. Louis to guard against that will be scoring early and often.
• Adam Wainwrights set the pace: One way to alleviate the pressure on the young bullpen would be getting length from the starting pitcher. It would be especially troublesome if Adam Wainwright was unable to work into the latter innings on Thursday, leaving the 'pen exposed for multiple innings right away. With Lance Lynn set in Game 2, Joe Kelly likely in Game 3, and either Miller or Wacha going in a possible Game 4, the possibility exists for some quick hooks. Wainwright simply has to be a horse.
FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS
19 - Home runs Pittsburgh hit against St. Louis this season. St. Louis only hit five.
9 - St. Louis Cardinals postseason appearances since Pittsburgh’s last in 1992.
13.50 - A.J. Burnett's ERA in four career starts at Busch Stadium.
.429/.452/.750 — Andrew McCutchen's hitting line against Cards ace Adam Wainwright in his career.
.408/.516 /.878 — Carlos Beltran's hitting line in three career NLDS appearances.