Five Keys For The Cards In The NLDS

Pittsburgh enjoyed this postseason thing so much, they wanted to make sure it didn’t end just yet.  They took care of the Reds last night with relative ease and now are winging their way to St. Louis to start the NLDS tomorrow afternoon.  We’ll do the normal matchup tables tomorrow, but I wanted to take a brief overview of the series as a whole.

Make no mistake, the Pirates are coming into this series with a significant amount of confidence.  They passed their first test on the national stage, which only increased their optimism about a deep October run.  They won the season series against the Redbirds, especially dominating them in PNC Park.  They have to think that if they can steal one of the first two, they could win this thing in four and move on to the next level.

There’s no doubt they can do that as well.  The Pirates are, obviously, a good team that match up well against St. Louis.  Even though the Cardinals will be installed as the favorites, it won’t be by much, putting some pressure on the Cards to take care of business and not get caught up in the underdog storyline.

What do the Cardinals need to do to take care of business?

One: Win Game 1.  A significant rule of thumb in the postseason is not to waste your ace’s outings.  That holds true with the Cardinals, even though any of their starters (and some of those that will be relievers) are capable of winning ballgames and would be favored in most pitching matchups.  However, you just can’t blow an Adam Wainwright start in a short series, especially if Wainwright is on his game.  That’s a hole you just don’t want to dig.

Besides, winning Game 1 puts the home field advantage back in the Pirates’ pocket and they still have Francisco Liriano waiting.  Losing Game 1 almost guarantees that, for the Cards to win, they will have to go all the way to Game 5.  Not only that, but it only increases the Pirates’ confidence and momentum.  Losing the first game would put the brakes on that, at least somewhat, and put a little question back into their minds.

Two: Keep all the hitters healthy.  There are no more Matt Adamses lying around.  If Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday goes down, we see a lot of Shane Robinson and maybe Adron Chambers.  Nothing against those guys, but that’s a pretty sharp downgrade and that doesn’t leave anything on the bench.  While it’d be good to keep the pitchers healthy as well, there are more to choose from in that regard.  The Cards are about as thin as they can get offensively, however.

Three: Get early leads.  Pittsburgh has a pretty strong bullpen, even if they don’t have a Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman at the end of it.  The Cards did pretty well in limited time against Jason Grilli but only had a .227/.261/.273 against Mark Melancon.  Besides, you’d much rather the Pirates have to try to rally against the young arms of the Cardinals than to see the Cardinal offense dig out of a hole.  Not that they can’t do it, but it’s much easier on the nerves if they don’t have to.

Four: Contain the big bats.  Easier said than done, of course.  St. Louis finally figured out Pedro Alvarez, at least to some degree.  Alvarez, who destroyed the Cardinals in the past, had only two homers this season and put up a .184/.232/.303 line.  However, Russell Martin took up the slack, hitting six homers on his way to a .300/.426/.720 mark.  Keeping Martin in the park and in line with his numbers against the rest of the league would be a huge first step in corralling this offense.

In case you are wondering, Andrew McCutchen only hit .246/.329/.377 against the Cards with two home runs.  Keeping him in check would be a very good way to win the series as well.

Five: Don’t hesitate to use the bullpen.  I don’t think we’ll see Mike Matheny labor too long with any starter, trying to get them a win or letting them have the nice positive experience of finishing off an inning.  The Cards have worked too hard to get here and I think Matheny realizes that.  It’s a luxury you can have when you are in the regular season, but you can’t afford that in October.  With the arms that the Cardinals have out there, many of which can go multiple innings, there’s no reason to stick with anyone that is struggling.

Obviously, these are just a few of the things the Cardinals need to be aware of during this series.  They need the bats not to get stone cold and not rely on that ridiculous average with runners in scoring position to bail them out.  We’d like to see a lot of 6- or 7-hit innings, but that’s not likely to happen.  Put the runs on the board and let the pitchers hold the lead.  Sounds like a good idea to me–how about you?

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