Friday, October 11, 2013

The Cardinals Close the Pirates’ Storybook

By Jeff Kallman

The team who lived and died by almost anything except big power on the regular season bombed themselves into the National League Championship Series Wednesday night. It started with a guy who's familiar enough for October pyrotechnics, and it was insured by a guy who grew up rooting for the team he helped the Cardinals vanquish.

Two years ago, David Freese guaranteed he'll never have to buy his own steak in St. Louis again with his one-strike-sway demolitions upon the Rangers in the World Series. Thursday night in the second inning, Freese's 2-run homer staking the Cardinals to an early 2-0 lead guaranteed he won't even have to buy his own appetizers, either.

"He's a stud," said Cardinals starter and winner Adam Wainwright. "He's a big-time player at big-time moments. And that's what we expect of him and that's what he continues to deliver."

Likewise two years ago, Matt Adams was working his way through the Cardinals' system after going in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft. Where Freese shone was where he could only aspire. Thursday night in the eighth inning, though, there he was, squaring off against Pirates reliever Mark Melancon for a two-run homer providing all the insurance the Cardinals might need.

And despite the impeccable pitching of Gerrit Cole otherwise, these Pirates just didn't have quite enough to overthrow a Cardinal juggernaut that entered the postseason off a 12-4 regular season finish and sent Wainwright out to put them away in Game Five Thursday night.

The Pirates and their hearty, hardy fans had waited only too long to get anything like a taste of postseason play again. In 2011 and 2012 they made tantalizing runs in the National League Central until a pair of second-half taperings away. This year, they stayed the course long enough and solid enough to make the wild card game. Then, they slammed Cincinnati up against the wall in that game to get to this division series.

It wasn't even close to enough.

And when Wainwright threw a nasty curve ball through Pedro Alvarez's bat with two on after two quick outs in the top of the ninth, Busch Stadium exploded even more noisily than PNC Park had upon the Pirates' demolition of the Reds. Almost more noisily than the Cardinals pouring toward the mound and out of the dugout.

"Every time we turned around," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters after it was all over, "Wainwright got in the way tonight. The at-bats got better, the approach got better, but he kept making pitches."

Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals hit any kind of overall spectacular over the set prior to Game 5. The Pirates' team division series batting average coming into the game was .189 with a .268 team on-base percentage; the Cardinals, .192 and .284. Adams had been reaching base at a reasonable pace (.353 division series OBP entering Game 5), but nothing much else; Freese (.154 BA, .267 OBP entering Game 5) had been one of the Cardinals' most conspicuous flops at the plate until Thursday night.

But with Jon Jay aboard on a two-out walk in the bottom of the second, Freese fouled off two before Cole hung him a breaking ball too delicious to resist lining into the Pirates' bullpen in left. Adams barely had time to check in at the plate in the bottom of the eighth before Melancon — who'd surrendered one homer all regular season—served him a fastball practically down the pipe, and Adams punted it twelve rows up the right field bleachers.

If he keeps that up, for however long the Cardinals' postseason stay lasts, Adams might threaten to leave Allen Craig—the first baseman for whom Adams stands in, the major leagues' leading hitter with men in scoring position, the victim of a left foot sprain that kept him out of the division series and may yet limit him to pinch hitting if anything in the LCS or beyond—the half-forgotten man.

The Cardinals slapped some stylish leather in squelching the occasional Pirate rally and keeping them to almost an excuse-me run, which they picked up in the top of the seventh. After back-to-back infield singles, Alvarez missed sending a Wainwright fastball into the seats by a foul tick, then hopped one off the first base pad and over Adams's head to send Justin Morneau home. But Russell Martin forced Alvarez at second for the side.

Pete Kozma, the Cardinals shortstop, looked like Ozzie Smith in the fourth when he dove and caught Neil Walker's sinking liner and threw out Morneau, who isn't exactly that far removed from a cement mixer as a runner, anyway, and even the hardiest Pirate fans had to know their heroes were practically in deep cement.

One key might have been the Pirates' inability to set tables for Andrew McCutchen, their perennial MVP candidate. How bad was it? McCutchen batted 20 times in the entire division series and only once did he hit with a man aboard. He managed to collect five hits and two walks entering Game Five and batted .357 coming in. What were his table-setters doing entering Game Five? How does a combined 1-for-32 strike you?

And why didn't Hurdle, otherwise handling things very finely all set long, find some way to shuffle his lineup, give McCutchen a few opportunities to move or drive in runners, and take advantage of Alvarez's and Martin's quality at-bats? Other than saying of Starling Marte and Walker, his enfeebled table-setters, "They're due."

For what? Morneau hasn't hit one into the seats since he became a Pirate in August, but a .370 OBP in 25 games — that's higher than Marte and Walker's combined division series OBP entering Game 5 — might have given a manager an idea about moving him up near the top of the order. Walker came into Game 5 with no hits and one walk in 17 plate appearances. Marte had 16 plate appearances coming in and had nothing but a leadoff bomb in the eighth inning of Game 2 plus one walk otherwise to show for it. And in Game 5, the pair of them went a combined 0-for-7 with one walk.

If that's table-setting, don't even think about the main course.

Unfortunately for these Pirates, Wainwright was the main Game Five course. Unfortunately, they waited too long to push Wainwright against the wall in earnest. That was a pretty game ninth inning two-out rally they tried to mount. A shame that Wainwright is even more game. Too much game even for Alvarez. Never mind these Pirates, whose season was described as storybook often enough, and who stand to make another serious and probably fun run of it in 2014.

All that was missing was the happy ending in the Pirates' clubhouse. Wainwright, Freese, and Adams made sure that ending belonged in the Cardinals' clubhouse. They'd like to make something similar happen at the Dodgers' expense.

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