If the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals do in fact meet in this year’s postseason, it will be in the National League Division Series, just as they did two years ago when Pittsburgh finally broke a two-decade-plus playoff drought. The Cardinals won a hard-fought, five-game set, culminated by Adam Wainwright’s complete-game gem in Game 5. So if they meet this year under similar circumstances – with St. Louis as the NL’s top dog and Pittsburgh as a 90-plus-win wild card team – what will be different this time around?
Record-wise, both teams could very well end up in triple-digits in wins, although the Pirates will need a 7-2 flurry to end the season to reach the century mark. St. Louis will have three-peated as NL Central champs, with two pennants and a World Series win since 2011. The regular season series is knotted at 8-8, with one more series to go next week.
Realistically, both teams are better clubs than two years ago, but at least on paper, the Cardinals are more significantly improved since then. Or at the very least, they have a more different and dynamic roster than the 2013 club. They won’t have Pete Kozma starting at shortstop (if he’s even on the playoff roster at all) or a rotation so deep that they can afford to use the returning Wainwright out of the bullpen. A bullpen so deep that there are four pitchers who have closing experience, including a very capable Kevin Siegrist who has filled in at times for current closer Trevor Rosenthal this season.
The Pirates will run out almost the same rotation as they did in 2013, with the primary difference being that Gerrit Cole is a bona fide ace now and the recently-acquired J.A. Happ should relegate Charlie Morton, a starter in Game 4 in 2013, to the bullpen if not inactive status. Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, the Game 1 starter in 2013, will fill the other two spots. It’s also worth noting that if the Pirates reach the NLDS, Cole likely will not start until Game 3 because he will presumably have started the wild card game against the Chicago Cubs.
Losing infielder Jung Ho Kang is a big blow for the Buccos, who had Clint Barnes starting at shortstop in 2013. Gone are Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, and Russell Martin, and stepping in are Gregory Polanco, Aramis Ramirez, and Francisco Cervelli. The latter trio is a slight upgrade, even though Martin’s shoes are tough ones to fill.
The Cardinals are getting career years from almost everyone on their roster (except for maybe Kozma), and 2013 starters David Freese, Carlos Beltran, and Daniel Descalso are gone while Jon Jay is riding the bench for the Redbirds. Though Matt Adams, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina are not fully healthy, they are still big bats capable of putting one in the seats at any given moment. Randal Grichuk also wasn’t around two years ago, nor were Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham, three rookies who have all had major impacts in 2015. Jhonny Peralta is another new face from 2013, and Kolten Wong barely saw action in 2013.
Pitching-wise, Pittsburgh’s bullpen is better than it was two years ago, but to say something you might hear from the beloved, late Yogi Berra, the Cardinals’ bullpen is even better than Pittsburgh’s better. The same goes for the rotation, whose deep depth (an Earl Weaver classic) is powerful enough to send Lance Lynn, an ace on most clubs, to a long-reliever role. The Pirates’ closer in 2013 was Jason Grilli, who is gone, while Mark Melancon has stepped in and Tony Watson has stepped us as the setup man. Both Melancon and Watson were members of the 2013 team, but Melancon struggled mightily in that series.
If you think the Pirates’ ability to match up in the regular season will give them an edge in October against St. Louis, think again. Pittsburgh went 10-9 vs. the Cardinals in 2013, including four wins in one five-game series at one point, but couldn’t carry that over into the playoffs. Since the middle of that season, the Pirates are just 6-19 at Busch Stadium with eight of those losses of the gut-wrenching, walk-off variety. They have won three of their last four there, but that won’t phase St. Louis one bit.
This feels like one of those scenarios where it may not truly be the Pirates’ time to overcome the Cardinals until they can crown themselves the kings of the division in the regular season. The looming idea that they would have to return to their house of horrors for a decisive Game 5 could rattle them subconsciously throughout the series, even if Wainwright won’t be starting this time around. Yet even the notion that he could rescue St. Louis out of the bullpen is a scary proposition. Michael Wacha, who no-hit the Pirates into the eighth inning of Game 4 in 2013 with the Cardinals on the brink, could be ready to play Wainwright’s role of dominant October ace.
There simply isn’t any team in this year’s postseason field that can rattle the Cardinals, who are known to rattle just about everyone they play. The San Francisco Giants’ bi-annual October absence is a blessing for the Cards, who have been knocked out of the NLCS two of the last three years. In fact, of the seven times the Cardinals have reached the postseason and not won the World Series since 2004, five of them were at the hands of either the Giants or the Boston Red Sox, another team that won’t be participating in the postseason party in 2015.
The Pirates and Cardinals are both better teams than they were when they met two years ago. But this could be the best team the Cards have had in recent memory, one that has handled every obstacle in its path. The Pirates are capable of winning the series, but an awful lot will have to go right. It did in 2013, and it wasn’t enough.