Considering that the last time the city of Pittsburgh had a baseball team over .500 or saw a playoff berth was 21 years ago, last night had to feel pretty good.
From the start, the Bucs dominated the Reds and aside from a minor scare or two cruised to a victory. Best of all Francisco Liriano did most of the heavy lifting and allowed the Pirates to preserve the rest of their top arms and bullpen. That means that the Pirates go into the NLDS against the Cardinals disadvantaged only by not having Liriano available for the early games of the series.
Of course competing with the Cardinals isn’t going to be easy, but the Pirates did win the season series 10-9 so that has to give them some confidence going forward. Still St. Louis had the best record in the National League and has had a couple of days to rest and set their rotation.
How much that will matter is hard to judge. While asking A.J Burnett to match up with Adam Wainwright in game one is a lot to ask, the match-ups after that won’t be quite as difficult.
The Cardinals do have some formidable arms, but all of them (Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez) have had rough spots over the last month. That’s something that Pirates fans hope is going to continue, and something they might well need considering the best starter the Bucs have other than Liriano is rookie Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t faced playoff pressure before and who’ll almost certainly start game 2 over Jeff Locke, who himself has pitched better than even the most devout Pirates fan could hope.
Of course while the pitching match ups look at least close, the Cardinals offense is cause for concern. It’s an offense that scored 149 runs more than the Bucs offense did in the regular season. The Cardinals don’t have a single impact player equal to Andrew McCutcheon offensively -- you could argue that Allen Craig is, but he won’t be playing in the NLDS due to injury -- they have plenty of stars and impact players in their lineup. It’s not a team that relies on home runs, but a team that hits for average has converted more than any other team in baseball with runners in scoring position.
Perhaps more importantly this is a seasoned team. Most of the key Cardinals players have been here before. While the Bucs, aside from a handful of players (Martin, Liriano and Burnett), don’t have much playoff experience the Cardinals certainly do. That should give the Cards an edge when it comes to handling the pressure and should help them make fewer mental errors against the Pirates.
When they do make those errors, the Pirates have to be ready to take advantage. To compete with the Cards they’ll need to find way to pressure them, to throw them off the game which they’ve excelled at all season long.
That will be a tall order, but it’s far from an impossible one. The Bucs have a chance, certainly a better chance than they’ve had in the past 21 years, but we won’t know if they are really ready for prime time until the games begin and we see what they can do against a seasoned playoff team who’s clicked on all cylinders during the regular season.
While plenty will say that the Bucs have no pressure, they aren’t expected to win, it’s not true. They have over 20 years' worth of pressure on them. That’s a heavy weight, that of the entire city of Pittsburgh. They have the talent, and they have a chance. But no mater what they’ll benefit from the experience going forward, and the Pirates future promises a lot more playoff baseball.
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