How they got here
Both teams emerged from the scrum at the top of the NL Central. The Cardinals opened the season by going 35-18 over the first two months, a 107-win pace. Though they cooled at midseason -- to a mere 92-win pace -- they rebounded with a strong September to hold off the Pirates and Reds. The Pirates had a 36-18 patch of their own, starting in May. Just four games, a not particularly meaningful total, separated the final record of the two teams, but if you want to read more into the Cardinals' ultimate arrival at the top of the pile note that according to their expected (Pythagorean) record the Cardinals underachieved by four games, whereas the Pirates overachieved by six games. If the latter represents luck more than skill, it's an ephemeral zephyr that can evaporate under the harsh October spotlight.
Much will be made of the fact that the Pirates won the season series from the Cardinals 10-9, but note that the Cardinals actually outscored the Pirates in those games 87-85 -- there was a 13-0 shutout pitched by Joe Kelly and the bullpen in the mix -- so it's not as if the Pirates dominated. Throw in the vastly greater experience of this Cardinals team and the situation brings to mind a line spoken by a weary Sir Alec Guinness in Return of the Jedi: "You must face Darth Vader... again."
The Pirates will correctly be billed as having the weaker offense of the two teams, but there are some things they do better than the Cardinals. They out-homered them 161 to 125 and more than doubled their stolen base total. On the whole, the Pirates had a fairly average offense for the National League of 2013, and though the late-season acquisition of Marlon Byrd patched the Pirates' most outstanding weak spot, the overall complexion of the offense didn't change much over the final weeks of the season. The absence of left fielder Starling Marte for most of the stretch run likely had something to do with that; the Pirates only had the final team assembled by general manager Neil Huntington together for a few games at the end of the season, so what we're going to see in this series is really a different, arguably better team than they had for most of the season.
As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals didn't hit the ball out of the park, but they did abuse the hell out of it between the foul lines, smacking 332 doubles on the season. They led the Senior Circuit in on-base percentage and runs scored, were second in batting average, and third in slugging percentage. The lineup's only weak spot is shortstop, where the Cardinals were forced to list the good-field/no-hit Pete Kozma (along with a generous dollop of the slightly more potent but weaker fielding Daniel Descalso) after Rafael Furcal was ruled out for the season. Cardinals shortstops hit .222/.280/.303 on the season, which wasn't the worst in the league at the position, but it was close.
Matt Carpenter (Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)
With Furcal out, the Cardinals lack a basestealing threat of any kind. The combination of station-to-station runners and a lot of runners on base equaled a high capacity for hitting into double plays. Note that the injury to Allen Craig deprives the Cardinals of a hitter who had a truly great year of clutch hitting but adds the hitter with the team's best home run/at-bat ratio to the lineup in Matt Adams.
The Pirates' offense is headed up by probable NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. He's the one true all-around star, one of the few players who is truly capable of carrying a team at his best. From May through July of last year, a span of 77 games, he turned into a speedy Ted Williams, hitting .392/.450/.706. This year he got off to a slow start, but hit .331/.422/.525 after April, climaxed by a .384 August. Marte's combination of power and speed and Marlon Byrd's age-35 power high give them two more above-average producers in the outfield.
Starling Marte (Jamie Sabau)
Aside from Clint Barmes, who is the National League version of Brendan Ryan, the rest of the lineup is just okay. Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36, but he offsets that with his lack of discernment; when Alvarez goes to the movies, he swings at the coming attractions. Late-season acquisition Justin Morneau has the opposite problem. His power disappeared for whole months this year, and although he showed good patience with the Pirates, he can't be counted on as a producer at this point.
Cardinals starting pitchers had the second-best ERA in the NL this year, trailing only the Dodgers. The Pirates were right there with them, only a few fractions of a run behind. The staff had tremendous depth, such that they could suffer the annual disappearance of Chris Carpenter and Lance Lynn's typically erratic season (the good Lynn showed up in April, May, and September and went 9-2 with a 2.67 ERA; the even Lynn took over from June through August and went 6-8 with 5.19 ERA before being exorcised). Game 1 will be started by NL wins leader Adam Wainwright, he of the impeccable command. The Manichean dualist Lynn will start Game 2. After that, manager Mike Matheny will use Joe Kelly for the Game 3 assignment, and choose between Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller for Game 4 if necessary. Miller would ordinarily be a no-brainer for a postseason start, but he went 0-4 with a 5.32 ERA against the Pirates this year, which means that the less-electric but groundball-heavy Kelly gets first dibs.
Trevor Rosenthal (Dilip Vishwanat)
The Cardinals have a deep pen, the second-best in the NL (as measured by Fair RA), but there were problems at the end of the season. Closer Edward Mujica had a 1.73 ERA heading into September, but in the final month he completely fell apart, allowing an ERA of 11.05 as batters went 18-for-35 with three home runs. He somehow made the series roster, but he won't be closing. That job will likely be handled by Trevor Rosenthal and his 97 mph fastball.
The Pirates will open the series with veteran A.J. Burnett, having burned through Francisco Liriano to get to this point. Burnett has made seven postseason starts, including five in the run up to the Yankees' 2009 World Series championship. Results were mixed, as is typical of Burnett -- sometimes he has no-hitter stuff, sometimes he spends four innings bouncing his curve in the dirt, wild-pitching runners around the bases until his manager comes to get him. Game 2 will feature rookie sensation Gerrit Cole, who finished the season on a 4-0, 1.69 ERA streak in which he whiffed 39 in 32 innings. Liriano and his slider will return in Game 3, and longtime Pirate Charlie Morton will pick up Game 4.
The Pirates have a real asset in their bullpen, which has some unusual components to it. There are two closer-strength pitchers in Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, and two left-handers who weren't used as LOOGYs but pitched long relief. In fact, there were no spot pitchers in the pen; Clint Hurdle went inning by inning instead of batter by batter, and this was of great advantage to the Pirates -- the faster you burn through relievers, the more likely the manager is to get down to the one who can't do the job. The Bucs had more innings concentrated in the hands of their best pitchers.
It's mostly Pirates here. The Cardinals have perhaps the best defensive catcher in the NL in Yadier Molina, but their outfield has two players who are slowing down in the wings and a center fielder who is stretched to cover the position. In the infield, Matt Carpenter has made a surprisingly easy move from third base to second. Past postseason David Freese isn't much of an asset at the hot corner. Blunt tool Alvarez was formerly a defensive weak spot for the Pirates, but he's improved at the position. In the outfield, they feature two guys with the speed to cover center and a guy who has just aged out of the position in right. Wild Card-game hero Russell Martin is up and down with throwing -- he had his best year in 2013, catching 40 percent of the burglars -- but that shouldn't be an issue against the Cardinals.
The experience is on the Pirates' side, but it's not necessarily good experience. That said, Hurdle has evolved a bit during his time with the Pirates. In his Rockies days he was liberal with the intentional walk, tantamount to pointing the gun at your own head when you're playing at altitude, and he was frequently burned for it. Last year, though, he abruptly holstered his four fingers and he kept them in his pocket this year, issuing only 26 free passes, tied with Matheny for the second-lowest total in the National League. Unfortunately, his dawning awareness did not encompass his use of the sac bunt; long one of the buntiest managers in the NL, he remained quick to throw away a plate appearance this year. The 40 sacrifices his position players executed was just three off the league lead. Matheny, who properly recognized the quality of his offense aside from his shortstops, saw his position players execute only 25 sacrifice bunts.
Clint Hurdle (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports )
Hurdle has also changed his style when it comes to going to the bullpen. When he first came into the league he was one of the slower hooks in the game. Now he's at the opposite end of the spectrum; the Pirates received the third-fewest innings from their starting pitchers in the NL.
It's tempting to name Carlos Beltran, a future Hall of Famer who has been such an extraordinary postseason performer in his career (.363/.470/.782 in 34 games), but just to vary things up we'll go with Adams, who is going to hit some home runs in this series.
The Cardinals win in five, their superior starting pitching making the difference over the full series.