Part of me wants to adopt Mike Matheny’s one game at a time mindset, but another part wants to think ahead and plan accordingly. Today, the St. Louis Cardinals begin their launch for title #12 in 2013. The battle starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates today at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. The Red Sea will be dominating 7th and Clark and turn the stadium into a bowl of red flavored passion. There is nothing like playoff baseball in St. Louis. As a Cards fan, we have come to expect it yearly. October isn’t the time to start thinking about next year’s club, wonder who will play the outfield or watch baseball players develop sad faces. In this town, we plan on contending for the championship every year and that is a proud feeling. Against the home team lies a team who hasn’t tasted playoff atmosphere in 21 years, or when I was 10 years old. The Pirates are hungry and arrogantly spanked the Reds in a wildcard game on Tuesday. They won’t go quietly into the night and neither will our Cardinals. I expect this series to go 5 games but this is the postseason and you simply never can tell. Let’s run down my list of thoughts on the series.
*Adam Wainwright taking on A.J. Burnett in game 1 is ideal for the Cards. Waino has been aces at home this month and Burnett got rocked for 8.10 ERA in this park during 2013. A.J. likes to throw that first pitch fastball and it’s the Cards mission to jump all over it before he can work in his deadly slider. Get to him early and do it brutally. Waino’s main problem is the first inning at home and if he gets out of that unscathed, good things will come. He only gets better as the game goes along, so its important to stake Big 50 to an early lead.
*The bullpen advantage slides into the Cards direction. Mark Melancon was getting torched in the last couple weeks of the season as the Pirates closer and Jason Grilli has only been back for a couple weeks. Their bullpen is strong but the Cards pen has been the backbone of this team’s 2013 surge. When the rotation got weary, the bullpen saved the team. When the bats went quiet, the last two men out of the pen closed the door. You can’t find a better threesome in a bullpen than Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal. Each bullpen is made up of young power arms but the Cards have the advantage.
*The Pirates have a stacked lineup, with Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau added in the final month. They also have Starlin Marte back in the leadoff spot, something the Cards didn’t have to face in September. Marte is a table setter, Andrew McCutchen is a finisher and there the Cards pests in Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. Right when you think it’s okay to breathe, you have seasoned catcher Russell Martin, who cranked two HR on Tuesday and has torched the Cards all year. While their pitching was their strength for the majority of the season, the Bucs bats improved mightily in the last two months and outhomered the Cards 18-5 in their season series. These guys can bring it and hit it deep. A test for the Cards.
*Game 3 in Pittsburgh looms as the biggest matchup of the series to me because you have the Cards road warrior and PNC specialist Joe Kelly taking on a lefthander in Francisco Liriano who has shredded our lineup 3 times this season. The Cards have to manage to win at least of the opening 2 games at Busch if not both because when they deal with Liriano their backs better not be against the wall. The best defense against the lefty is throwing our best road guy on the hill and Kelly was 5-1 with a 2.09 ERA on the road this season, and won two games in Pittsburgh. Each of those wins came as stoppers, where Kelly halted a losing streak or avoided a sweep. Game 2 between Lance Lynn and Gerrit Cole is big but the game of the series rests in Game 3.
*Sure, the Cards don’t play well in PNC Park, struggled against the Pirates in the second half and their park will be rocking but this is October baseball ladies and gents and the stage experience belongs to our Cards. The Reds were a better matchup because they weren’t good enough to make the playoffs and the Pirates exposed that nerve on Tuesday. You don’t whine about who is standing in front of you. You simply take them down. Every time I hear, “Oh no, PNC” I remind those people the playoffs are a stage where our young players and key veterans don’t wilt. We rise to the occasion like Spartans.
*The weakest link on the Cards side is their bench. With Allen Craig out and Matt Adams playing every day, there is no big bang off the bench for our team. I had hoped Brock Petersen would show some power in his September callup but he barely hit the ball out of the infield. This is an area where John Mozelaik could have improved at the trade deadline but decided not to thinking neither of his core guys would get hurt. Craig went down and the bench was truly exposed. The only thing you can do is use your speedy defensive minded second baseman, Kolten Wong, in the starting lineup and put Matt Carpenter at third. When the game reaches the 7th inning, you can pinch hit struggling yet historically clutch David Freese for Wong. Then, you have a guy who can come through in the late innings. If not, your lethal bat is Shane Robinson. You can have your best defensive 2B in Wong, who also gives you speed, in for the first 6-7 innings and then insert Freese when you need that big hit late in the game. It’s not conventional but with this bench you have to go outside the box. Freese’s late inning heroics are late game knocks and this will give you a chance to best utilize him.
*I don’t like Edward Mujica on the postseason roster but I understand it. Mujica is a guy with a dead arm right now. His splitter is flat and has been hammered and his straight heat isn’t doing much to fool hitters. He is a big part of our 2013 surge, but at this point in the chase, YOU HAVE TO GO WITH THE PLAYERS WHO GIVE YOU THE BEST CHANCE TO WIN. To me, Mujica isn’t as valuable right now as Sam Freeman or Tyler Lyons. However, Matheny didn’t want to piss off his clubhouse by leaving a guy who had 37 saves on the bus, so there is that. Let’s hope Chief has a little magic in store for the Red October.
*Mike Matheny and Clint Hurdle will have some interesting duels in this series. A young manager who hands the reins of important games over to rookies against a man who also utilizes rookies but doesn’t shy away from experience either. In my mind, two skippers who deserve Manager of the Year consideration.
*The biggest question is who starts Game 4 for the Cards? In my opinion it should be Michael Wacha. While Shelby Miller was great in September and pitched in last year’s playoffs, I firmly believe the matchup with the Pirates favors the kid in Wacha more. He pitched 9 innings in a start and some relief work against the Pirates in September and the Bucs lineup had big problems with his changeup. A lot of teams are going to find that over the top sledgehammer delivery of Wacha’s to be hard to contend with. This is a tough spot for Matheny but you have to look at the numbers. Miller was 0-4 against the Pirates in 2013. Wacha was stellar against them, granted in a lot less innings. Barring his bumpy start in Colorado, Wacha is a decent road pitcher and could be the equalizer in a pivotal Game 4 at PNC Park. I saw the logic in starting Lance Lynn at home in Game 2 and would have approved of Miller there as well but you have to be smart when it comes to Game 4 in PNC. Miller struggled there in 2013 and Wacha is an arm that the Pirates don’t know too well and couldn’t do much with when they did stand in against him. That is being kept in secret probably due to Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist wanting to see how the first three games play out. To me, my starter is picked out. Start The Wacha.
The Cards are playing the bad guys in this series, trying to take down the league’s nation wide lovefest in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Personally, anything that stops the saying “Bucktober” from gaining traction is good by me. It’s the Rogues in Red’s job to sink the Pirates ship and if we can score this Game 1 win today, that is a big push towards securing a spot in the NLCS and possibly moving forward to the World Series. However, I am desperately trying to stay in Matheny mode here and take it one game at a time.
Once again, ladies and gents, GO CARDS! It’s time to chase history!
Thanks for staying,
(PHOTO CREDIT-SPORTING NEWS)