By Stefan Guilliams, Editor
This time last year as well as the previous twenty one years, the Pittsburgh Pirates were watching the NLDS. However, the new look Bucs have found their way to the playoffs for the first time since Barry Bonds wore the yellow and black. The Cards and Pirates battled all year for the National League Central title, but in a late August push the Birds grinded past Pittsburgh who held off Cincinnati in the process.
Game one of the National League Divisional series went off without a hitch for the Birds. Wainwright went seven strong letting up three hits, one being a home run from Pedro Alvarez, nine strikeouts, no walks and only one run. With pitching this effective, the Cardinal organization as well as their fans have a reason to get excited. Waino’s shutdown pitching would have been a waste if not for the offense picking apart Buc’s AJ Burnett. Arguably the greatest postseason hitter of his time, Carlos Beltran strengthened his claim to fame by first tying the Great Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, for 8th all-time in home runs but also for the most home runs per at bat in playoff history. As a Houston Astro, Beltran struck fear into the hearts of Cardinal fans and their pitchers upon every at bat. With his stellar performances in not one, not two but three straight seasons (2 with HOU/ 1 with NYM) in the NLCS, Beltran has always been a, somewhat crucial, part of playoff time in St. Louis. Beltran belted a three run home run off of Burnett in the 3rd inning sparking a seven run third inning in the 9-1 slaughter in game one.
As they say however, what goes around comes around. In his postseason debut, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole mirrored Wainwright’s game one performance. With six innings under his belt including two hits and one earned run, Cole shutdown the red hot Cardinals. While striking out five and walking just one, Cole gave up a singular run on a home run off the bat of Yadier Molina. The Buc’s offense came alive with a two run shot to center by Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh’s regular season home run leader (36) and arguably the most dangerous hitter in this year’s postseason. This was followed by a two run 5th and an 8th run shot by Starling Marte to seal up the 6 run rout of the Cards.
With the series tied at one game apiece, the Cards move the series to PNC Park in Pittssburgh. Mike Matheny went with the popular hurler, Joe Kelly, who was a vital piece of the pitching rotation in the last leg of the regular season. He continued his dominance into game three leaving the game with only two earned runs in the in the 6th. At that point the Pirates were up by one with a 3-2 score. In the 8th inning, Carlos Beltran passed Ruth for full control of number 8 on the all-time postseason home run list. With that dinger the Card’s tied up the game and saved Kelly from recording a loss. However, the Cards could not overcome a dominating performance by Francisco Liriano, who pitched six strong and let up two runs on three hits as well as the Pirates’ bullpen lead by the winning pitcher Mark Melancon. The Buc’s pulled ahead late in the 8th to clinch the 5-3 win to improve to two games to one over the Red Birds.
Enter Wacha. With an electrifying one hitter on September 24th against the Nationals, Michael Wacha looked to dazzle in his postseason debut. Well Mike, mission accomplished. Fast forward to the 8th no one base with one out and who rather than Pedro Alvarez comes to the plate. As the ball landed in the hands of the ecstatic Pirate fans in right field, Wacha exits with his second blown no hitter in his last two starts. With the help from Matt Holliday in the 6th with a two run home run and an impressive performance from both Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal to tie up the series and take the series back to The Lou.
In the past decade the Cardinals have become a postseason staple, excelling well in a winner take all situation. “I’m a man that finishes what he starts” said Adam Wainwright while discussing game five with the media. Wainwright is no stranger to important playoff games. In 2006, as the closer, Wainwright pitched the clincher to not only the NLCS game seven (striking out now teammate Beltran), but shared one of the most iconic moments in Cardinals history with his final strikeout of Brandon Inge to win the World Series. However, no one could have predicted another historic and clutch outing in the works. In the 2nd inning the playoff hero of 2011, David Freese walked up to the plate with two outs and one. The slugger lined a bullet right over the left field fence, putting the Cards up 2-0 early. To extend the lead going into the 7th, Jon Jay batted in Matt Holliday on a single. With two runners for Pittsburgh, whom else but Alvarez to make things interesting. On an infield single to second Justin Morneau scored to tighten the Birds lead to two. The well-known Cardiac Cards stepped up and renamed themselves the Clutch Cardinals with a blast by upcoming star Matt Adams scoring Holliday. This was followed by a clutch hit by the hot hitting short stop Pete Kozma to top off the Cards at six runs to Pittsburgh’s one. Of course the story doesn’t end there. Top of the ninth, two outs and two on, Wainwright is still in the game to finish what he started as he so wished. After two late hits by Morneau and Byrd, the last person the Cardinals wanted to see in this situation stands in the box, Pedro Alvarez. On no balls and two strike, Wainwright gets Alvarez to swing and a miss sending the Cardinals to the NLCS for the third year in a row.
(Photos by Carley BIne)