NLDS Game 5 preview: Pirates at Cardinals
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Start time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Series: Tied 2-2
Throughout this series, the specter of having to face Adam Wainwright in Game 5 has haunted the Pirates, and now that's exactly who is standing in the way of their first postseason series win in 34 years.
In Game 1, of this series Wainwright held Pittsburgh to a single run over seven innings, striking out nine, walking none and allowing just three baserunners on a pair of two-out singles in the fourth and Pedro Alvarez's fifth-inning solo home run. If you toss out his career-worst start on Aug. 28 against the Reds, an obvious fluke, Wainwright has posted a 1.86 ERA in his other 17 home starts this season, including Game 1 against the Bucs. In his last six starts, regardless of location, Wainwright has gone 5-0 with a 1.71 ERA. Two of those outings have come at home against the Pirates. In those two combined, totaling 14 innings, he has allowed seven baserunners, five hits and one run while striking out 17.
Despite all of that, a Cardinals victory in this game -- and thus this series -- is not a foregone conclusion. Thanks to the off-days in the schedule, the Pirates are able to go with Game 2 winner Gerrit Cole and not Game 1 loser A.J. Burnett, who was as bad as Wainwright was good in that game and four others at Busch Stadium this season.
Cole, a rookie righty, was almost as good in Game 2 as Wainwright was in Game 1, allowing just one run and three baserunners while striking out five over six innings. Cole only needed 86 pitches to get through those six innings, but with a five-run lead, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle opted to take it easy on his rookie and give the top three arms in his bullpen, none of whom pitched in Game 1's blowout loss, some work. With the win, Cole improved his record in his last six starts to 5-0 with a 1.66 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and his road mark this season to 5-2 with a 2.28 ERA in eight starts.
Game 2 was the 23-year-old Cole's first career appearance against the Cardinals, but it's already clear that he'll need to be careful with Carlos Beltran in Game 5. Beltran has been St. Louis' best hitter in this series. He homered in support of Wainwright in Game 1 and leads the team in homers (2), RBIs (6), hits (4, tied with three others), runs, walks (3 of each, both tied with Jon Jay) and extra-base hits (3) and has struck out just once in 17 plate appearances. Beltran is also one of the greatest postseason hitters of all-time, having batted .355/.464/.783 in 168 plate appearances with 16 home runs, a line remarkably similar to Babe Ruth's (.326/.467/.744 with 15 homers in 167 PA).
The Pirates, meanwhile, will be relying upon Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the National League lead in home runs this season with 36 and has been their best bat in this series. He has hit safely and driven in at least one run in all four games and homered in three of them. Overall, he's 5-for-13 (.385) with a 1.154 slugging percentage in the NLDS.
Alvarez hasn't had a ton of success off Wainwright in the past, but Pittsburgh's other leading hitter in this series, Andrew McCutchen, has. McCutchen has hit .419/.441/.710 in 34 career plate appearances against Wainwright and has made just four outs in his last nine plate appearances against St. Louis ace with a walk, two singles, a double and a home run over that recent stretch. McCutchen is 7-for-17 (.412) in this postseason (including the Wild-Card Game) with five walks (.545 on-base percentage) and just two strikeouts, though he also has just one extra-base hit (a double in Game 3).
Despite the fact that their recent histories are so lopsided -- the Pirates are in their first postseason in 21 years while the Cardinals have been in the playoffs more times than any NL team in this century -- the two have been very evenly matched this season. Including the regular season, they have played 23 games, with Pittsburgh owning a 12-11 edge but St. Louis having scored more runs, 102-99. In this series, both teams have won two games and the Cards have scored exactly one more run. While the Bucs have not been to the NLCS in 21 years, they can hope that Wainwright will fare no better than his only previous outing in a winner-take-all postseason game, when he had a disaster start in last year's NLDS Game 5 against the Nationals. Of course, St. Louis won that game, just as it has won six of the last seven postseason contests in which it faced elimination dating back to 2011, including Game 5 of the Division Series in each of the last two years.