The St. Louis Cardinals have defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in 5 games to advance to their third straight NLCS. This series didn’t lack drama, as these teams knew each other well from their 19 regular season meetings, and the series included excellent performances by multiple players for both teams. While the Pirates had most of the support around the country (outside of St. Louis) after reaching the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the Cardinals had the home-field advantage and plenty of postseason experience after winning the World Series in 2011, and losing the NLCS in 7 games last year. Let’s look at how the games played out.
Game 1: Cardinals 9, Pirates 1. Game 1 started quietly, as the game was scoreless with only 2 hits combined after two and a half innings, before the Cardinals opened up the scoring, and effectively ended the game, in the bottom of the 3rd. It all started with an Adam Wainwright leadoff walk, followed by a Matt Carpenter single. Carlos Beltran then hit his 15th career postseason home run (tying Babe Ruth), giving the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. Matt Holliday doubled, Matt Adams was hit by a pitch, then Yadier Molina and Jon Jay both walked, scoring another run, making the score 4-0. A David Freese single, and a subsequent throwing error by Marlon Byrd, cleared the bases and made the score 7-0, and there was still nobody out. The next three hitters all made outs, but the damage had been done. Pedro Alvarez homered in the top of the 5th for the Pirates lone run of the game, and the Cardinals added tack-on runs in the 5th and 6th on RBIs by Daniel Descalso and Yadier Molina. The Pirates went down in order in each of the remaining innings, excluding an Andrew McCutcheon single in the 9th, and the Cardinals had made a big Game 1 statement, and led the series 1-0.
Game 2: Pirates 7, Cardinals 1. Game 2 was almost identical to Game 1, except for the fact the visitors were the team who scored all the runs (and they didn’t do all their damage at once). Both sides had a hit, but no runs, in the 1st inning. In the top of the 2nd, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole helped himself with a RBI single, giving the Pirates their first lead of the series, 1-0. In the third, Alvarez homered for the second straight game, hitting a 2-run shot to give Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead. When the Cardinals were hitting, Gerrit Cole was pitching superbly, mowing down the Cardinals. In the top of the 5th, RBIs by Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin made the score 5-0, Pirates. Yadier Molina had the lone Cardinals bright spot in the bottom of the 5th when he hit a solo homer to make it a 5-1 game. Russell Martin added a sacrifice fly in the 7th and Sterling Marte hit a solo homer in the 8th to make the score 7-1 in favor of the Pirates, who got the final outs easily and had evened the series at 1-1.
Game 3: Pirates 5, Cardinals 3. Game 3 will be looked at, particularly in Pittsburgh, as a playoff classic (and might would’ve been even more so if the Pirates had won the series). It began in the bottom of the 1st with a 2-RBI single by Marlon Byrd, giving the Pirates a 2-1 lead. The Cardinals loaded the bases in the 3rd against Francisco Liriano, but Matt Holliday flied out to end the threat. Carlos Beltran singled in the 5th to score 2 and tie the game at 2-2. In the bottom of the 6th, Russell Martin hit a sacrifice fly to score Andrew McCutcheon and give the Pirates a 3-2 lead. In the top of the 8th, Carlos Beltran hit a solo homer (to now pass Babe Ruth with 16 career postseason HR), tying the game, 3-3. In the ensuing half-inning, RBI singles by Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin gave the Pirates a 5-3 lead. Closer Jason Grilli came in for the Pirates, and three outs later, the Pirates had a 2-1 series lead. This game was so good because the Pirates led by 2, the Cardinals tied it, the Pirates led by 1, the Cardinals tied it, and the Pirates took the lead in the 8th and won by 2.
Game 4: Cardinals 2, Pirates 1. Game 4 is another game that will be considered a classic, this time particularly in St. Louis. The Cardinals turned to rookie Michael Wacha, and not ace Adam Wainwright, even though they were facing elimination. In Wacha’s final start of the regular season, he had come within one out of a no-hitter, and that form continued into this game. Wacha had a perfect game into the 6th, before allowing a walk, and took a no-hitter 7 1/3 innings, before it ended on a Pedro Alvarez homer. That made the score 2-1; the Cardinals had taken a 2-0 lead in the 6th on a Matt Holliday 2-run homer. That had been Charlie Morton’s only mistake, but he couldn’t match the performance of Wacha. Trevor Rosenthal pitched the 9th for the Cardinals, and put the tying run on with a 2-out walk of Neil Walker, bringing NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutcheon to the plate with a chance to tie or win the game. When McCutcheon popped up, the Cardinals had tied the series, 2-2, and were going back home for Game 5.
Game 5: Cardinals 6, Pirates 1. Game 5 between Adam Wainwright and Gerrit Cole was much closer than the score would indicate, as it was actually a 2-run game before the bottom of the 8th. Both pitchers didn’t allow a hit in the 1st, although Wainwright did walk Neil Walker. In the top of the 2nd, a Marlon Byrd leadoff single was nullified when he was doubled up on a line drive by Pedro Alvarez. In the bottom half, David Freese, who seems to always come up with big hits in the postseason, hit a 2-run homer to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead. From that point until the middle of the 6th, Wainwright allowed just 1 hit, and Cole allowed just 2. In the bottom of the 6th, after Justin Wilson relieved Gerrit Cole, Jon Jay hit an RBI single that scored Matt Holliday to give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. In the top of the 7th, the Pirates cut into the lead after infield singles put Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd on base, and Morneau scored when a Pedro Alvarez grounder hit the first base bag and bounced over Matt Adams head, making the score 3-1. A big moment in the game came in the top of the 8th when, after a Jordy Mercer single, a Sterling Marte liner was caught by Cardinals 2B Matt Carpenter, who threw to first to double up Mercer in a very close play, ending the inning. In the bottom of the 8th, with the Cardinals already leading by 2 and 3 outs away from the NLCS, Matt Adams hit a 2-run homer to make the lead 5-1, then a Pete Kozma infield hit scored Jon Jay to make the score 6-1. Wainwright stayed in for the 9th to try for a complete game, and did give up 2 hits, but struck out Pedro Alvarez to win Game 5 and eliminate the Pirates, winning the series, 3-2.
The Pirates certainly have nothing to be ashamed of, after their first winning season and first playoff appearance since 1992. They also were within one game of advancing to the NLCS; that would have given them their first playoff series win since the 1979 World Series. Clint Hurdle’s team certainly has a bright future, with a lot of young players who played key roles in this magical season. One of those is 3B Pedro Alvarez, who became the first player in MLB history to have an RBI in each of his first 6 career playoff games (including the NL Wild Card Game and the NLDS).
Big players for the Cardinals in the series included David Freese and Carlos Beltran, both of whom have reputations for performing well in the postseason. That reputation for Freese started after Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, when he tied the game in the 9th with a 2-RBI triple and won the game in the 11th with a walk-off homer, and Game 7, when he had a 2-RBI double in a game that would eventually clinch the Cardinals’ 11th championship. He added to that reputation in this series with the Game 1 RBI single and especially the homer in Game 5. Beltran, as I mentioned, tied and passed Babe Ruth for postseason homers, and that puts Beltran 8th all-time in that category. Beltran accounted for all 3 of the Cardinals RBIs in Game 3.
The Cardinals, as mentioned earlier, will now play their 3rd consecutive NLCS. The last team to do that was actually the Cardinals from 2004-06. They won two of those three, advancing to the World Series in 2004 and 2006. For that trend to continue, after winning the NLCS in 2011 on their way to a World Series title, and losing it to the San Francisco Giants last year, they will have to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, who defeated the Atlanta Braves in 4 games to win their NLDS. The last time these two franchises met in the playoffs, the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in the 2009 Division Series. Their last meeting in the NLCS was in 1985, remembered for an Ozzie Smith homer won Game 5 for the Cardinals (Go crazy, folks!), before the Cardinals won the series in 6 games. The Cardinals will have home-field advantage for the best-of-7 series.