There is no doubt about the task that lies ahead for the Cardinals in starting their playoff push with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The margin of a difference between the two teams was rarely much further apart than three games at any point in the season, and for much of it, it felt as if the Pirates owned the Cardinals head-to-head. The numbers are what the numbers are, and while the playoffs do reset the standings, they do not reset the match up; a series which has turned 10-9 in Pittsburgh’s favor thus far.
However, the Cardinals have had their usual late season swerve since much of the damage that was done to them by Pittsburgh. They were an NL-best 19-8 in September, which included a three-game sweep over Pittsburgh in St. Louis early in the month. Over the past two seasons, the Cardinals have played at their best the later the season has drawn, with a 42-27 mark in the months of September and October, including the postseason. Experience is their ally, and could be their greatest asset over the next (at max) five games.
Despite this, it would be fair to say that the general sentiment that the Pirates could be the arrow in the Cardinals Achilles is fair. They hold two pitchers that have been dominant against the St. Louis lineup all year. Nobody has had more success versus the Cardinals than Francisco Liriano, who in three starts is undefeated and carries a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and .127 average against. He is in line for the Game 3 start on Sunday in Pittsburgh, where they Pirates have won seven of ten games against the Cardinals this year. Another asset on their side takes to the mound today, in AJ Burnett, who also has three wins to only one loss on the year in the matchup, and carried a no-hitter into the seventh against the team early in the year.
Pitching has been a strength for the Bucs, and it is an upper hand that will have to be overcome by the Cardinals, who are countering with a less certain staff, but some definite strengths as well. Adam Wainwright is setup to be the alpha and omega of the series, throwing game one and in line to toss the decisive game five as well. Yet, outside of their ace, the Cardinals are primed to leave nothing off the table in taking down their most persistent foe.
Having the league-leader in wins for the season taking to the mound is an obvious strength, but there it is what is to follow him that has been the most debated element, but could be a smokescreen to much bigger strategy. The decision to start Lance Lynn in game two was rightfully questioned by both fans and media alike. Lynn is the most mercurial of all the Cardinal arms, and despite pitching much better down the stretch, with the club winning three of his final five starts and him posting a 2.12 ERA two of the victories for himself. Yet, the Pirates have hit him well, to the tone of 30 hits in 27 innings and a 5.60 ERA. However, he still carries two victories against the club this season, which is second to only Joe Kelly’s three victories against Pittsburgh.
Yet, winning in swarms is the Cardinals approach this year offensively, and it appears Matheny is looking to spread this approach the mound as well early in the Division Series. He is going all in with his arms, as he has made the decision to put his now-proven arsenal of young arms on full availability out of the bullpen. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha will both join the mix of Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal in the bullpen early in the series. With Kelly primed to start game three on Sunday in Pittsburgh, one will move to the rotation later, but both of the prized rookies will be available to go if needed before that crucial, but as of now if necessary, date.
This decision proves one thing clearly: the Cardinals are going all-in and sparing no part of its depth to do so. While the Pirates are the most formidable opponent the team could face, the Cardinals have reached the summit of entering as the National League’s best team over the past six months by holding nothing back. An approach they are appearing to be willing to go into overdrive to keep their year moving.