Season series with Cards gives Bucs confidence
Having won 10 of 19 vs. rivals, Pirates not cramming to study for NLDS opponent
ST. LOUIS -- The time of year may be different, but everything else about the Pirates' National League Division Series is quite familiar.
The playoff format is designed to throw a speed bump in front of Wild Card teams, by asking them to play the team with the best regular-season record in their respective league. But in a sense, the meeting with the NL Central champion Cardinals is a bonus. The Bucs won 10 of the 19 games against the Cards this year. Some of the awe and wonder about the playoffs could be mitigated by the fact they know the opponent so well.
"We know them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "They know us. There won't be any hidden-ball tricks, I hope. No Statue of Liberty plays. We've seen a lot of each other. Our scouts have done a great job. We were prepared in a number of different ways to go if we needed to go. Maybe from that point that we don't have a lot of playoff experience, that might be a benefit to us."
On Wednesday, the eve of Game 1, the teams had a loose afternoon workout at Busch Stadium. Players could prepare and relax, knowing that they did not have to spend time cramming scouting reports or studying video.
"As many times as we've seen them in the regular season, it definitely helps," Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes said. "It's not like we're facing guys we haven't seen before. There's a lot of confidence that can come from that, especially from guys that haven't played a lot in the postseason."
From the start, the Pirates understood the Cardinals were among baseball's standard-bearers, with their recent postseason success. When Pedro Alvarez hit a three-run homer in the first inning of a 9-2 victory in front of a larger-than-normal Monday crowd at PNC Park on July 29, it seemed to send the message that the Pirates -- who hadn't had a winning season since 1992 -- were ready to compete with anyone. The Bucs won four times in that five-game series.
The Cardinals took the final game of that series, 12-0, then took two of three in St. Louis from Aug. 13-15. The Cards won the final three regular-season meetings by a combined 16 runs. But at no point was there a sense that the Pirates had receded to their previous position of admirers more than competitors.
"It's no secret this organization [the Cardinals] has been the model for success over the past several years," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "In our organization, they've tried to develop that, too -- the pitching-first mentality, the defense, the grind-it-out offensive approach. Certainly, they've been successful for so many years because of all those things. We've played very good baseball ourselves this year."
The Pirates hold significant advantages in the season series with the Cardinals in home runs (19-5) and batting average (.259-.248). However, the Cards have a narrow edge in runs (87-85).
Either way, the Bucs come in believing they proved they're more than just an underdog opponent. While the Cardinals' star-studded lineup and talented pitching staff receive top billing from experts, the Cards realize they have to deal with Alvarez and catcher Russell Martin, who each come in with 11 RBIs against St. Louis this season.
"We've done pretty well against them this regular season, and we know we can play them well," said Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who has driven in eight runs against the Cardinals. "We know it's not going to be easy, but we know we're not here for no reason."
The Cards have the decided edge in postseason experience, but the Pirates hope to join the list of teams in recent seasons that have ridden a wave of momentum. Players admitted still feeling the ripples from their stadium-shaking crowd at PNC Park during Tuesday night's 6-2 NL Wild Card Game victory.
"There were a lot of people that said they'd never seen it," said right-handed reliever Jason Grill, who was on the mound for the final out. "It felt like a hockey mentality there, and if the pregame announcements, lineups and national anthem didn't intimidate anyone, it was almost like we won right from the get-go, even before the first pitch was thrown."
The crowd will be screaming for the Cardinals on Thursday, but either way, the Pirates' challenge will be to let emotion spur them rather than consume them. Veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd, whose power helped the Bucs late in the season, said he has found that for a team with little experience this time of year, there is a calm, businesslike approach -- something they'll need against the playoff-tested Cards.
"It starts from the top, with Clint Hurdle," Byrd said. "That's the way he's had this team all year long. These guys are relaxed and they know they can play.
"There are no worries. 'Did I put the work in? Did I do my homework? Do I know my approach? Do I know what this guy has? How much does his breaking ball move? How much does his sinker move?' We go out there prepared."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.