TOn September 27, 2006, two friends of mine and I went down to PNC Park for a Pirates/Astros game. The season was beyond over for the Pirates; they were 65-92 headed into the game and they were already five games into what was ended up being an eight-game losing streak. The Astros were in the middle of a desperate run at a collapsing Cardinal team; they'd won seven in a row to shrink an 8 1/2 game deficit to a 1 1/2 game deficit with five games left. Mostly, we went to the park to see PNC one last time before another long winter.
The Pirates had a 6-1 lead after the fifth inning, but coughed up four runs in the top of the sixth and one more in the top of the ninth to allow the Astros to force extra innings. The paid crowd that night was only about 16,000, but it emptied out after the ninth inning REAL quick; it was a weeknight, it was cold, and it was a hopeless game anyway. By the time the 13th and 14th innings rolled around, the only people left were college students with nothing better to do and Astros fans.
My friends and I had been having fun heckling the Astros down the left field line (Aubrey Huff drew the brunt of our heckling, and the park was empty enough that we could see that he could both hear us and we were making him laugh) and bantering back and forth with the Astros fans sitting near us. We freaked out in the 13th when Jonah Bayliss came in, essentally ensuring a Pirate loss, and the Astros' fans looked at us and said, "Come on, now. You really don't want the Cardinals to win the division, do you?"
As much as the Pirates have built up little rivalries with the Brewers and Reds over the last few years, it's the Cardinals that really get under my skin. Remember how long Albert Pujols was in the top ten of the PNC Park home run leaders list as a visiting player? Remember the way that they mercilessly beat Ian Snell and Oliver Perez into useless husks of flesh and blood and batting practice arms? In that 2006 season mentioned above, the Cardials went from 73-63 on Labor Day to 83-78 on the season's final day, and somehow barely snuck into the playoff despite that huge divsion lead. They won the World Series. In 2011, they finished strong to barely sneak into the playoffs, and they won the World Series again. They're good when they're supposed to be good and they're good when they're not supposed to be good. They're the Cardinals, they're always good.
They're good this year, too, but the trick is that they're not the only good team in this NLDS. The Pirates beat them ten times in 19 games this year and they split the 14 that they've played since the All-Star break right down the middle. The Pirates played brilliantly in two series against them at PNC Park with first place on the line, they played them more or less evenly in the series at Busch Stadium that was sandwiched between those two PNC series (the Cardinals won two of three, but one of them was the Marte Drop Game), and they got destroyed by the Cards at Busch in early September that more or less gave the Cardinals the leg up that they needed to win the central. The Pirates have won games started by Wainwright and Lynn and Miller on the Cardinals end and they've won games started by Liriano and Burnett both on their end (Morton hasn't won a game against the Cardinals this year and Cole hasn't faced them).
The Cardinals are the overwhelming choice of the experts in this series and maybe they should be, but I'll tell you this much: when I read four Sporting News writers pick the Cardinals and two of them can't find a reason to cite better than the Cardinals' batting average with runners on base -- something that is circumstantial and not a skill that's repeatable in a useful fashion -- I suddenly feel awfully good about the Pirates' chances. I don't know that the Pirates will win this series and I don't even know if I'd say that they should win, but I will tell you with absolutely certainty that they can win. It doesn't even take that much imagination to see how with Burnett, Cole, and Liriano scheduled for the first three games of the series.
I'm hardly re-inventing the wheel here, but I think that trio is the way to the NLCS for the Pirates. The biggest difference for the Bucs in the September 6-8 series where they got smoked by the Cardinals when compared to the other three post-All-Star-Break-series in which they beat the Cards or played them evenly was that the Pirates' starters didn't give them much of a chance (and, it's worth noting that Jeff Locke and Kris Johnson started two of those games and they won't be starting any this week).
When the Cardinals won their two World Series in 2006 and 2011, watching them always gave me the impression that they were a team that was built to play together in exactly the way that they managed to come together and play in the playoffs. That's how the Pirates play when they're at their best. The pitching pitches to the strength of the defense. The offense fits together like a puzzle. That's what the Pirates have looked like in these last four games against the Reds, and it's how they're going to have to look to beat the Cardinals.