Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

NLDS Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals

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Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

After Tuesday’s Wild Card game the Pirates are on to their first ever NLDS. The last time that there was postseason action in Pittsburgh, they played in Three Rivers Stadium and Jim Leyland was managing a team led by every day players Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and pitchers Doug Drabek and a rookie Tim Wakefield.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are in the playoffs for the third straight season. They have advanced to at least the NLCS in each of the last two and eliminated the NL’s top team each time.

The Pirates won the season series 10-9 despite being outscored 87-85. After losing the first four games of a five game series just after the All-Star game, the Cardinals have won seven of the last ten. A three game sweep in early September pulled the season series nearly even and should give the Cardinals some confidence heading into Thursday’s match up.

In game one, Adam Wainwright will take the ball and square off against A.J. Burnett. Burnett had 37 strikeouts in 34.1 innings and amassed a record of 3-1 and an ERA of 3.67. The split that may loom large is Burnett’s ERA at Busch Stadium, 8.10 in three starts. Wainwright bucked his trend of struggles against the Pirates in his career. He was 1-0 in three starts with a 3.00 ERA this season, a vast improvement over his career numbers, a 9-4 record but a 4.81 ERA.

Lance Lynn will hit the mound for game two. Lynn was in danger of losing his spot in the playoff rotation after struggling through the middle of the season, but got his groove back in September. His 2.12 ERA in his five September starts helped him beat out Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller for the second start.

He will be opposed by Gerrit Cole, the 23-year-old rookie. Cole has never pitched against the Cardinals, but he did have ten wins in 19 starts. Although he has no experience against the Cardinals, Cole may have a good chance to topple them based on a few spits. The Cardinals had an OPS (On-base+slugging) of .733 this season, second in the National League, but when they face power pitchers the OPS drops to .658. Furthermore, when facing pitchers under the age of 25 they fall all the way to .588. To put that into perspective, if they had a .658 OPS for the whole season they would have been worse than every NL team but the Marlins, and .588 would put them 39 points below the Marlins as the lightest hitting team in the league. Because of this, Cole May have the best chance to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller will fill out the rest of the rotation for the Cardinals while the Pirates will likely counter with Charlie Morton and Fransisco Liriano for games three and four.

Morton was shelled in his three starts against St. Louis this year, 0-2 with 12 earned runs in just 13.2 innings. On the contrary, Liriano, a Cy Young award candidate, channels his inner Sandy Kofaux when facing the Cardinals, an 0.75 ERA in his three winning starts against them this season.

Kelly’s season took off when he was injected into the starting rotation. As a starter, he had a 9-3 record with a 2.28 ERA. Miller spent all of his rookie campaign in the rotation and was one of St. Louis’ most consistent performers. A 3.06 ERA and 15 wins were both near the top for NL rookies. He joined Lynn in getting his groove back in September by going 3-0 with a 2.76 ERA.

Moving away from pitching, the Pirates will need to keep up their outstanding hitting against the Cardinals if they want to keep pace with the National League’s best offense.

The Pirates were ninth in the league in runs and fourteenth in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, but some of their hitters crush Cardinals’ pitching. The main contributors in games against the Cardinals are Russell Martin, Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez. Martin has a .300 average and 6 home runs this year against St. Louis. Jones hit .321 in 17 games and had 10 of his season’s 51 RBIs. Alvarez hit just 2 home runs against their NL Central rival this year, but has 11 home runs and 42 RBIs in his career against the Cards. If they want to keep up in this series, the Pirates will need to rely on these players to continue to crush the Cardinals.

The Cardinals will counter with their balanced attack. They had eight players with 50 or more  RBIs this year, the most of any National League team, and have five of the top six performers with runners in scoring position. Success in this series will hinge on the Matts; Carpenter, Holliday and Adams. Matt Carpenter led the league in hits, runs and doubles while reaching base nearly 40 percent of the time. Matt Holliday went on a tear heading into the playoffs. He hit .348 in the second half of the season and .378 in September. He finished the season hitting .300 and drove in 23 runs in the final month of the season. The last Matt is Matt Adams. The rookie out of Slippery Rock University provided some pop off the bench for most of the season for the Cardinals, but an injury to Allen Craig forced him into the starting lineup. Adams has a .321 average with six home runs and 13 RBIs while hitting in the heart of the order.

Each team will have an x-factor for this season, and both will be coming out of the bullpen.

For the Pirates it will be the Sharknado. This staff of seasoned vets, young guns and discarded arms have combined to become the National League’s second best bullpen. Jason Grilli seems to be back from his flexor tendon injury and back to his closing ways. The phrase “his ERA ballooned to 1.39″ does not really make any sense, but set-up man Mark Melancon‘s has. In September Melancon has an ERA for 4.22 and has pitched just four times in the last two weeks. Other ‘pen-pals like lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson along with rightie Vin Mazzaro will all play major roles after posting ERAs under three this season.

The big players for the Cardinals will be the young guns out of the ‘pen. Last year Michael Wacha was pitching for Texas A&M in the College World Series, this year he will try to pitch the Cardinals into the MLB World Series. Wacha was inches away from throwing a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season, and if you need to see the impact a starter can have out of the bullpen just look at Tim Lincecum last year. Joining Wacha in the ‘pen will be rookie left-hander Kevin Siegrist and rookie double-play-specialist Seth Maness. Finally, the Cardinals will offer up rookie (are you picking up a theme here?)  closer Trevor Rosenthal. Although Edward Mujica is on the playoff roster, he has more than likely lost his job to Rosenthal but will still have a major role and influence on this young bullpen.

This will be a hotly contested series, but it will likely come down to what most playoff series come down to, timely hitting. Because of this, I give the edge to the St. Louis Cardinals and expect them to win in four games.

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Tags: National League Division Series Pittsburgh Pirates St. Louis Cardnials

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