The Pirates and Cardinals have been in the same league since 1892 and the same division since the format was instituted in 1969, but for all their shared history, their meeting in the National League Division Series represents something new for these two century-plus-old rivals. Not only have they never faced each other in the postseason, they’d never even made the playoffs in the same year before, making this the first time we’ll see them face off under the bright lights of October.
This stage is certainly nothing new for St. Louis, which is making its 10th postseason appearance in the last 14 years, the most by any NL team in that span. Pittsburgh, of course, is in the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and is the last NL team to get to the postseason in this millennium.
These two teams battled for the Central Division title all season, with the Pirates spending 56 days in first place only to have the Cardinals catch them for the last time amid a three-game sweep in St. Louis on Sept. 7 and finally pass them for good on Sept. 17. The Bucs won the season series 10-9, but the Cards scored more runs, 87-85. With teams that evenly matched, expect this series to go the distance.
Player To Watch: Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen has already made three All-Star games, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and finished third in last year’s NL MVP voting, but this month could be the coming out party for the 26-year-old. McCutchen, this yer’s likely NL MVP, will certainly be the best player on the field in this matchup, one capable of having a game-changing impact any time he is inside the white lines, be it in the batter’s box, on the bases or in centerfield.
He got his postseason career off to a fine start in Tuesday night’s Wild-Card Game by reaching base in each of his first four plate appearances and scoring once. McCutchen also has spectacular numbers against the Cardinals’ Game 1 (and potential Game 5) starter, Adam Wainwright, having hit .429/.452/.750 in 31 career plate appearances against the St. Louis ace.
Key Matchup: Starling Marte vs. Yadier Molina
Marte, the Pirates’ speedy leftfielder, finished third in the National League with 41 stolen bases despite missing 20 games due to injury. He also led the majors in times caught stealing with 15, though the net result was a 73 percent success rate (the league average was 72 percent). Cardinals catcher Molina, meanwhile, was third in the majors with a 43.5 caught stealing percentage from behind the plate (compared to a league average of 28 percent).
Marte stole four bases in five attempts against the Cardinals this year, but two of those steals came against Molina’s backups, making Marte 2-for-3 against Molina. That’s a tiny number that doesn’t really tell us anything, but the confrontation between one of the major leagues’ top basestealers and best-throwing catchers is still one that should be a thrill to watch.
Stat to Know: 2.53/8.10
Those are the respective ERAs at Busch Stadium this year for St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright and Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett, who, if this series goes five games, should get two starts each at that ballpark. Wainwright’s ERA, which came in 17 starts at Busch, is impressive but becomes more so if you toss out his 2 IP, 9 R disaster start against the Reds from Aug. 28. The result is a 1.89 ERA in his other 16 home starts, in which he averaged more than 7 1/3 innings per outing.
That’s the pitcher the Pirates have to beat, a true ace who should finish in the top five in the Cy Young voting for the third time in his last four seasons. Meanwhile, Burnett was 5-7 with a 4.22 ERA on the road this season and has allowed 10 runs over 7 1/3 innings in his last two appearances in St. Louis.
After some speculation that he would be dropped entirely, displaced Cardinals closer Edward Mujica will be one of St. Louis’ 25 players but he will not be closing games. Mujica dominated for four and a half months after taking over as the team’s closer in mid-April in the wake of Jason Motte’s Tommy John surgery and Mitchell Boggs’ struggles, converting 35 of 37 save opportunities and posting a 1.72 ERA through the end of August.
In September, however, he posted an 11.05 ERA, blew two more saves, and was relieved of the closer’s job while complaining of fatigue and shoulder pain. Fireballer Trevor Rosenthal, who impressed in last year’s postseason (8 2/3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 K) and is technically still a rookie, converted saves in three consecutive games last week and will replace Mujica as closer in the NLDS. It’s worth mentioning that St. Louis has used this approach before with great success: Wainwright, then a rookie, took over as closer late in the season in 2006 and nailed down both the NLCS and World Series clinchers.
It’s also worth noting that the Cardinals will be without first baseman and team-RBI leader Allen Craig in this series due to a sprained left foot. Rookie (there’s that word again) Matt Adams, who hit .284/.335/.503 with 17 home runs in 319 plate appearances this season, will start at first base in his stead.
X-factor: The PNC Park crowd
In truth, the impact of the Pittsburgh crowd on Tuesday night’s Wild-Card Game was likely overstated. Still, the sustained noise and intensity of the fans at PNC Park recalled those of the crowds at Minneapolis’s Metrodome and Seattle’s Kingdome in the 1987 and 1995 postseasons, respectively, no mean feat in an open-air stadium. The record crowd of 40,487, in a ballpark designed to hold 2,000 fewer people, acted (and dressed) as one, appearing to rattle Reds starter Johnny Cueto in the second inning.
The Cardinals as a team have a ton of recent postseason experience, but as mentioned above, their roster for this series is heavily populated by rookies, particularly on the pitching staff, which has six first-year hurlers. Four of them — Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez and lefty Kevin Siegrist are in the bullpen — and the other two (Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha) are candidates to start Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh, along with sophomore Joe Kelly. If the Pirates can stage a rally against one of those young starters or relievers, the crowd could very well get into his head and make itself a factor once again. They could also drown out communication between teammates in the field, possibly leading to a key fielding miscue.
Prediction: Cardinals in five