NLDS preview: Breaking down Cardinals vs. Pirates

ST. LOUIS — There should be no surprises in the NL Division Series matching the Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals against the runner-up Pittsburgh Pirates.

The teams already have met 19 times this season, and neither team was able to claim much of an edge. The Pirates hold a 10-9 advantage, while the Cardinals finished with a plus-two run differential.

Both teams enter the NLDS with momentum. The Pirates swept the Reds on the final regular-season weekend in Cincinnati. Then the Pirates eliminated the Reds 6-2 in Pittsburgh in Tuesday’s NL wild-card game. St. Louis went 13-2 at Busch Stadium in September to finish with the NL’s best record and earn home-field advantage. Against the Pirates, the Cardinals will need every edge they can get.

1. Starting lineup

Remember this number: .330. That was the Cardinals’ batting average with runners in scoring position, and it was the best in the majors over the past 40 seasons. Against the Pirates, the Cardinals weren’t quite as proficient with RISP, but their .313 average was plenty robust.

The Cardinals have been without the majors’ leading hitter with RISP, Allen Craig (.454), since Sept. 4, but they hardly missed him. The Cardinals led the NL in scoring in the final month, and they finished first for the season. Rookie Matt Adams stepped into Craig’s cleanup spot and hit .326 with a team-leading eight homers in September. A couple of other Matts, Holliday and Carpenter, also finished strong. Holliday hit .378 in September; Carpenter, the NL leader in runs (126) and hits (199), hit .349 over the final month. And then there’s MVP candidate Yadier Molina, the league’s best catcher.

Led by Pedro Alvarez, whose 36 homers tied for the NL lead, the Pirates possess more power than St. Louis. Wild-card game hero Russell Martin hit six of his 15 regular-season homers against the Cardinals. MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, however, was held to a .246 average by the Cardinals.

THE EDGE: Cardinals

2. Rotation

The Pirates’ biggest advantage against the Cardinals was neutralized by having to pitch Francisco Liriano in the wild-card game. Instead of having the lefty for two starts in the series, he will be able to go only once. The Cardinals are happy about that because Liriano owned them. In three starts, he went 3-0 while giving up two runs in 24 innings.

Still, Pittsburgh has right-hander Gerrit Cole lined up to start twice, and he finished his rookie season by going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in September. Cole has not faced the Cardinals, either, and they struggled against unfamiliar arms all season.

The Cardinals rotation, led by ace Adam Wainwright, enters October on a roll. Their five starters combined for a 2.36 ERA in September, with none posting an ERA higher than 2.76. The Cardinals are set to start their youngest starters in Pittsburgh, which could prove interesting in what figures to be a wild-and-crazy PNC Park.

THE EDGE: Cardinals

3. Bullpen

Both clubs changed closers toward the end of the season, with Mark Melancon giving way to Jason Grilli for the Pirates and Trevor Rosenthal taking over for Edward Mujica in St. Louis. The changes worked well for the clubs, too. Grilli appears to be back to his first-half form, when he was the NL’s saves leader. Rosenthal is a rookie but no stranger to the postseason. After his September call-up last year, he worked 8 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs, striking out 15 and giving up two hits.

Both bullpens also are stocked with big, young arms that enjoyed strong seasons and will allow both managers to employ a quick hook on their starters. The Pirates finished second in NL bullpen ERA (2.85), the Cardinals eighth (3.43).

THE EDGE: Pirates

4. Bench

The Pirates’ late-season additions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau not only lifted their lineup but bolstered their bench. Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata started at times during the regular season but will come off the bench in this series.

With Adams in the lineup, a Cardinals bench that already was lacking in thump became a bigger weakness. Their backups hit a total of four home runs all season.

THE EDGE: Pirates

5. Intangibles

The Cardinals own a decisive edge in playoff experience and enter the postseason playing as well as they have all season. The Cardinals won their final six games and went an NL-best 19-8 in September.

But if you saw PNC Park during the Pirates’ 6-2 wild-card victory over the Reds, you could see that something special is going on these days in playoff-deprived Pittsburgh.


Final prediction

The Cardinals are the better team but the Pirates are plenty capable and, more significant, are riding a wave of excitement that will be difficult to stop.

THE EDGE: Pirates in four

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