MLB Coverage: Pittsburgh-St. Louis Division Series Preview

The ¬†Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals spent all year fighting it out for the NL Central title and the right to avoid the one-game wild-card playoff. The Pirates survived the knockout game against the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday and now that whole Pittsburgh-St. Louis conversation all year simply boiled down to where this Division Series matchup would open and close. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews Pirates-Cards.

We’ll compare each team in their four key component parts–the ability to put runners on base, power hitting, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then we’ll close with some historical context and a prediction.

GETTING ON BASE: This is a big problem area for Pittsburgh, and if they lose this series it likely comes down to this. While Andrew McCutchen is great in all phases of the game and has a .404 OBP, and the Pirates have gotten some help in late-season acquisitions Justin Morneau (.370) and Marlon Byrd (.357), this is an offense that is just not very consistent.

Pittsburgh needs someone like a Neil Walker or Starling Marte, who have each shown flashes of consistency at getting on base to have a good series, or else they’ll be stuck playing for the long ball.

St. Louis, on the other hand, is a lineup that we’re more accustomed to seeing in the American League. The Cardinals are stacked with players who grind out at-bats. Whether it’s someone like a John Jay at the top of the order (.351), a power hitter like Matt Holliday (.389) or MVP candidates Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter (.359 and .392 respectively), the Cardinals make you work and they keep the pressure on.

The Pirates won the wild-card game in part because Reds’ hitters repeatedly chased balls out of the strike zone. That won’t work here. Big advantage to St. Louis in this area of the game.

POWER HITTING: McCutchen is again outstanding at hitting the long ball. He got off to a slower start to the season, and ended up with a .508 slugging percentage. It’s a mark of how good he is that we look at this number and think of it as a little bit of a down year. But there’s no question he can take over a short series.

Byrd homered in the wild-card win, and slugged .486 in the thirty games he’s played with the Pirates. Marte, at .441, isn’t great, but good enough that he could be asked to step it up at a moment like this.

It’s the X-factors that make Pittsburgh interesting here and the biggest of third baseman Pedro Alvarez. With 36 home runs, he’s got the ability to change a game–and in a best-of-five, changing one game can change the outcome of a series–but he’s also got the “ability” to disappear completely from the offense.

The other X-factor is Russell Martin. The catcher does not have good power numbers. But he homered in the wild-card game and in the 2012 playoffs, playing for the Yankees, he hit a big home run to help win a game against the Orioles. Martin is a veteran with a clutch track record and we shouldn’t underestimate him.

St. Louis, again, is loaded. From Molina to Carpenter to Holliday to Carlos Beltran, they have players who can drive the ball in the alleys and into the seats. Even though David Freese had a bad year (.381 slugging) is anyone ready to bet against him in a postseason series? And while St. Louis is going to be hurt by the loss of Allen Craig, who’s still suffering from his September foot injury and is out for this series, Craig was replaced by Matt Adams, a big horse who slugged .503 in limited duty. The Cardinals have their share of game-changers.

STARTING PITCHING: Here’s where being the division winner rather than the wild-card matters, even if you survive the one-game knockout. St. Louis has Adam Wainwright ready to pitch Games 1 & 5, as the ace comes off a 19-win season with a 2.94 ERA.

The middle games are more up in the air. Cardinal manager Mike Matheny has announced Lance Lynn as his Game 2 starter, even though Lynn’s 3.97 ERA is higher than the other candidates. I’d rather see someone like a Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06) or Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69) get the opportunity. Or how about Michael Wacha, whose ERA is 2.78 and came within an out of a no-hitter in the season’s final week? Matheny and the Cardinals have earned a lot of benefit of the doubt in decisions like this, so I’ll give it to them…but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my doubts about Lynn.

Pittsburgh used up Francisco Liriano to win on Tuesday, so he won’t be available until Sunday’s Game 3. This isn’t the worst thing–Liriano is a vastly better pitcher at home, so perhaps it’s best to save him for when the series reverts to PNC Park.

A.J. Burnett posted a 3.30 ERA and has some solid postseason experience. He won a must-win Game 2 in the 2009 World Series after the New York Yankees had lost the opener. And Burnett won a literal must-win Game 4 of the 2011 Division Series when the Yankees played the Tigers. In both games, Burnett truly won them, as opposed to riding the coattails of his offense. He’s got a tough assignment as Wainwright’s sparring partner, but we know Burnett won’t blink on this stage.

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle has not announced any pitching matchups beyond Game 1, but Gerritt Cole, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke are all more or less interchangeable, as solid, but not great starters. Two will get starts (presuming Burnett pitches twice and Liriano goes once) and the odd man out can strengthen the bullpen.

BULLPEN: This is the area where the Pirates can get some separation. The relief pitching in Pittsburgh has been outstanding all season long. Jason Grilli closed 33/35 save chances with a 2.70 ERA and was having an MVP-worthy season until an injury after the All-Star break slowed him up. Grilli is healthy now.

Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are the two best setup men in the National League. And Vin Mazzaro and Justin Wilson would each be among the best setup pitchers on a lot of other playoff teams. Then add in the fact that a starting pitcher comes into the bullpen for the postseason and Hurdle has the depth to lock down any game he leads after five innings.

You can look at the stats for St. Louis and feel good about the pen. Edward Mujica closed 37/41 chances at a 2.78 ERA. Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness had very good years, as did Kyle Siegrest and Randy Choate in more limited work. The Cards will also have a reliable starting pitcher join their relief corps for the playoffs.

But St. Louis also coughed up some games late–or more accurately, relied on their offense to bail them out after coughing up some games. Maybe this was just a case of a couple hiccups, the kind of which every team has. The problem I have is that relief pitching, more than any other aspect of baseball, is subject to getting hot at the right time. The Cards have been on the right side of that wave in 2006 and 2011. I have a feeling they be on the wrong side right now.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: There is surprisingly little history between these two teams, at least in the modern era of 1976 and beyond. Over that time, each franchise has had some great high points and they’ve been in the same division both before and after the realignment of 1994. But they have rarely been good simultaneously, so in a lot of ways, these two historic franchises will write the best chapter of their rivalry over the next week.

Nor have the fan bases really rivaled each other in any other sport. There’s no Steelers-Rams matchups–they just missed each other in the 2001 Super Bowl and their 1979 Super Bowl came when the Rams were still in Los Angeles. There’s no epic Penguins-Blues series in hockey to look back on. It’s long overdue for Pittsburgh and St. Louis fans to work up some loathing and it starts now.

THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S PICK: I’ll take St. Louis. The only reason I have to go against them is the concern over their bullpen, which is more hunch-based than anything. I think Wainwright will win any game he starts, which naturally includes Game 1 and could include Game 5. But I don’t think it gets that far. St. Louis wins in four, with the storyline being the Pirates’ inability to get runners on base consistently.