Just how evenly matched were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates this season? The Pirates won the season series, 10-9. The Cardinals scored 87 runs in those games. The Pirates scored 85. Now they meet in the postseason, for the first time since the Cardinals swept the Pirates in early September in a series that ultimately decided the NL Central.
Game 1, Thursday 10/3 in St. Louis, A.J. Burnett vs Adam Wainwright
Game 2, Friday 10/4 in St. Louis, Gerrit Cole vs Lance Lynn
Game 3, Sunday 10/6 in Pittsburgh, Francisco Liriano vs TBA
Game 4 (if necessary), Monday 10/7 in Pittsburgh, Charlie Morton vs TBA
Game 5 (if necessary), Wednesday 10/9 in St. Louis, A.J. Burnett vs TBA
Starting Pitching: You could make the argument that the only team with better starting pitching in the postseason than the Cardinals is the Los Angeles Dodgers. While the Cardinals’ starting pitching put up a 3.42 ERA this season, the Pirates weren’t far behind, finishing 5th in the majors at 3.50. Wainwright/Burnett should be a great start to the series, former #1 pick Gerrit Cole will be making his postseason debut, and Francisco Liriano will attempt to follow up an impressive outing in the NL Wildcard game. The Cardinals are being more tight-lipped about their plans for their starters, but Mike Matheny has floated the idea of Shelby Miller and/or Michael Wacha being available out of the bullpen in Game 1, meaning Joe Kelly could get the Game 3 start, with Miller or Wacha taking the mound in Game 4. The slight edge goes to St. Louis here, partially due to previous postseason experience and partially due to the fact that the Cardinals don't have the reputation for surrendering walks that Burnett and Liriano do.
Bullpen: Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli get the credit for essentially making games in which the Pirates lead only 7 innings long, but the middle relief has been incredibly stellar all year, too. The Cardinals’ bullpen has a few more question marks heading into this series, though, thanks to Edward Mujica struggling down the stretch and a slew of rookies making up the majority of the postseason pen. It’s important not to confuse that inexperience for ineffectiveness, though. Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist are all capable of throwing some serious heat and are getting their chance to break out on a national stage (although Rosenthal already did so throwing triple digits in last year’s postseason). The slight edge here may have to go to the Pirates, though, who have shown they know how to lock down a lead -- their 79% save success rate is the highest of any team in the postseason.
Lineup: The Pirates may have the best player in the series in Andrew McCutchen, and the savvy midseason acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau helped fill a couple needs without mortgaging the future in case their run to the postseason didn’t work out. Still, they can’t compare to the St. Louis lineup, who easily scored the most runs in the National League this season, leading to a regular season run differential of +187. The Cardinals have the bats to hang with anyone in the playoffs, and that’s before you start to consider the unlikely sources of offense that always seem to pop up in their playoff runs (remember David Freese’s 2011?). St. Louis also had the NL’s best on-base percentage, which is something that becomes even more important in the postseason. The Cardinals get the edge here.
Bench: If the Cardinals have one weakness, it’s the fact that they don’t have a ton of depth and the bench suffers as a result of Matheny preferring to have flexibility in the bullpen to play matchups in the late innings. The Pirates have more pop off the bench than the Cardinals do, with the likes of Garrett Jones or John Buck possibly being able to run into one in a pinch-hit appearance.
Overall: This should be a very fun series to watch -- both teams know each other well, the managers know each other’s tendencies, and if the Pirates can steal one of the first two games on the road, the Cardinals are going to have a hell of a time trying to get the series back to St. Louis. With that said, with a slight edge in starting pitching and a deeper starting lineup, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Cardinals will end up putting an end to the Bucs’ Cinderella run. If there’s anyone that can walk into the madhouse that’s PNC Park, it’d be the business-like Cards.