For the first time in MLB history two teams from the same division battled in the NLDS. After a full season of combat, the three NL Central powers have been whittled down to one as the Cardinals outlasted the Pirates in a battle of wills resulting in a winner-take-all Game 5. With such an outstanding series, some major points may be overlooked because of the final result. So here are five things to remember from one of the best series of the first round.
1. Age is just a state of mind.
As presently constituted, the Cardinals have the fourth youngest roster in all of baseball, while the Pirates come in near the middle of the pack at number 16. The Cardinals and Pirates both have incredibly young cores infused with veteran talent. Big performers under the age of 28 split between the two teams include Andrew McCutchen, Matt Adams, Pedro Alvarez, Matt Carpenter, Starling Marte, and Jon Jay. This doesn’t include the power arms coming out of both rotations, and the incredible youth of the Cardinals bullpen. This shouldn’t be the last time these two meat in the playoffs, and youth is a big reason why.
2. The Pirates proved to be playoff performers against their rival.
Three players hit over .300 in this series for the Pirates –Alvarez, Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd– and five bullpen arms went the whole series without surrendering a run — Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris and Tony Watson– while starting pitching ruled in their two wins with a combined starters ERA of 2.25 in their wins. The Cardinals killers continued to crush in this series headed by Alvarez, Liriano and Russel Martin. Alvarez homered three times and had an RBI in all five games. Martin hit under .200 for the series but came up with four RBIs. And Liriano seemed to be feeling out his pitches all day but still threw six innings of three hit ball. Although their season numbers may not stand up to those of the Cardinals most Pirates players crave red bird competition.
3. Stars are born in October.
Each of the final four games featured a starter without playoff expirence. Following a 9-1 smashing in game 1 the Pirates were in search of their momentum from the wild card game. In game 2 they handed the ball to a starter with just 19 career starts. Cole shut down the cardinals over 6 innings. He allowed just one run on a solo home run by Yadier Molina.
The Cardinals countered with two unproven starters of their own. Joe Kelly squared off with Cardinal kryptonite Francisco Liriano. Kelly allowed five hits, four walks but just two runs, and as he exited in the middle of the sixth the score was still tied. He gave the Cardinals the same thing he always does, a chance to win.
Game four showed the finest display of young pitching in the whole series. Michael Wacha carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. He lost his no-hitter and shutout on the same pitch as Alvarez homered to right-center, but Wacha exceeded all expecatations by taking a no-hitter past the seventh inning for the second straight start.
Cole pitched just five innings in the deciding game five, but was far from disappointing. He was one hanging breaking ball away from keeping the Cardinals scoreless for the first five innings. He showed why he was the number one overall pick in 2011 and why he will be at the top of the rotation for a long time.
4. Starting Pitching still rules.
These are the stat lines for the losing team’s starting pitcher in each of the games in this series.
A.J. Burnett – 2 innings, 6 hits, 4 walks, 7 earned runs and 0 strikeouts.
Lance Lynn – 4.1 innings, 7 hits, 3 walks, 5 earned runs and 6 strikeouts.
Joe Kelly – 5.1 innings, 5 hits, 4 walks, 2 earned runs and 5 strikeouts.
Charlie Morton – 5.2 innings, 3 hits, 4 walks, 2 earned runs and 4 strikeouts.
Gerrit Cole – 5 innings, 3 hits, 1 walk, 2 earned runs and 5 strikeouts.
The combined numbers for these five starts comes out to an ERA of 7.25, 6.04 BB/9 and a WHIP of 1.79. I would like to equate that for you, but no one had numbers anywhere near that this season. Joe Blanton had the highest starters ERA at 6.04, the highest walk rate from a starter was Jason Marquis at 5.20 and the highest WHIP was Joe Saunders‘ 1.60. Those are not guys you would expect to see in a playoff rotation but it is similar to how the losing starters performed in this series, and that is no way to win a playoff game.
5. You still can’t bet against the Cards.
In the regular season the Cardinals had two MVP candidates, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter. They also had an all-star first basemen with 97 RBIs, Allen Craig, and an all-star closer with 37 saves, Edward Mujica. In september those two all-stars lost their jobs, one by injury and one by slipping performance (possible due to injury), while the MVPs continued to perform.
As the playoffs loomed it became obvious that the two all-stars would not be ready to perform at a high level in October but all signs pointed to strong performances from their prospective MVPs making this series all the more surprising.
The top three regular season hitters for the Cardinals, Molina, Carpenter and Craig(who did not play), had a combined 1 RBI. Carpenter, one of the league’s top on-base hitters, reached just twice in 19 plate appearances. Molina reached base 40% of the time, but drove in just one run no a solo home run in game 2. When you add in the fact that Mujica threw just one inning, the Cardinals would need performances from some unsung heroes.
Whether it was Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez or Trevor Rosenthal out of the pen, and Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Pete Kozma or David Freese on the field, the Cardinals plugged away until the the dust settled. They have a plan, and if trips to the NLCS are any indication it seems to be working.
For that reason, you can’t count out the Cards.