Consult Your CARDiologist

Today’s game is rated TV-MA.  Viewer discretion is advised.  Persons with a history of high blood pressure, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat or other heart issues are advised to consider watching it on delay or following the game via other methods.  Consult your doctor to see if you are healthy enough to watch Game 5.

We all wanted to see the Cardinals avoid the play-in wildcard game, yet here we are, staring at another winner-take-all game anyway.  You can slice it and dice it, preview it from here to first pitch, but it all boils down to what the players do on this particular day.  Somebody may have the game of his life and win it for his team.  Someone might have one of those games that you like to forget about if it happens in mid-June but is impossible to do so if you have it in October.

The Pirates, proving why they are now a team that is in the playoffs rather than sitting at home as they have been the past 20 years, skipped over A.J. Burnett and went straight to Gerrit Cole for today’s climatic battle.  There’s an article on the Pirates web site that posits that perhaps seeing Adam Wainwright for the second time in less than a week gives Pittsburgh a bit of an advantage.  Adam Wainwright is no mystery to the Pirates, so I’m not sure that seeing him twice in a row is that big of a deal.  Perhaps it is, as the Pirates are probably hoping to see Waino struggle like he did in Game 5 last year against the Nationals.

Where the familiarity game may come into play more is with Cole.  The Cardinals hadn’t seen him at all before the last game and it showed.  Cole’s a great young pitcher and it well be that he will come out and do the exact same thing tonight.  However, given that he’s fresh in the minds of the Cards plus they’ve had an extra day to prepare for him, there’s at least a strong chance things will go a little different this time.

What you can’t count on is Cole to crumble in the face of the pressure of the game.  Two reasons to discount that: one, Game 2 was the biggest game of his life before tonight, a game that was almost a must-win for the Pirates, and we saw what happened there.  Two, why would we think Cole would falter when we saw what Michael Wacha did in his first exposure to the crucible that is must-win playoff baseball?

However, we know that Wainwright probably won’t be feeling the pressure.  He’s pitched in bigger games and in bigger spots–all he has to do is look at Carlos Beltran in right field to remind himself of that.  Here are Wainwright’s postseason starts in his career:

2009 NLDS Game 2: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 7 K, 1 BB, one ball off of Matt Holliday‘s nether regions and a Ryan Franklin blown save.
2012 NLDS Game 1: 5.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 10 K, 3 BB
2012 NLDS Game 5: 2.1 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 5 K, 0 BB
2012 NLCS Game 4: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 5 K, 0 BB
2013 NLCS Game 1: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 9 K, 0 BB

Save for that Game 5 from last year, a year where Wainwright was coming off of Tommy John surgery and was erratic all year long, Waino’s been pretty consistent, allowing just one run and striking out five or more.  There’s no real reason to think he can’t do that again tonight.  Sure, maybe he struggles in must-win starts, but that seems unlikely given what we know of Adam Wainwright, doesn’t it?  The sample size of this is way too small to draw a conclusion that goes against all we feel we know about the man.

What’s important is that the Cardinals don’t rely on last-minute magic.  They received that in 2011 and 2012, but eventually the baseball bartender is going to look down at them signaling for another round of the same stuff and say, “Go home, Cards, you’re drunk. I’m cutting you off.”  As we saw in the LCS last year, there are no guarantees for this team, no magical ability to defeat all the odds.  It gives fans hope and a reason to stick around, but it’s a terrible tactical plan.

Last week, I wrote about five keys for this series.  I think all of them hold up, but the most important thing today will be to contain the Pittsburgh bats.  Pedro Alvarez has again found that Cardinal Killer stroke, hitting home runs in almost every game.  Russell Martin hasn’t been as deadly, but still can hurt this team quickly.  If those guys go 0-4 today, I’m going to feel real good about the chances we’re breaking down the Dodgers come tomorrow.

There’s a difference between the last two magical Game 5s–this one is at Busch Stadium.  Which means that, with any luck, we have a 1/2 inning less to worry tonight.  It all boils down to this.  It’s all the marbles or whatever metaphor or phrase you’d like to apply.

It’s a winner-take-all with the ace on the mound and a rested bullpen behind him.  It may not be a blowout, it may be closer than any of us can handle, but I like their chances.

As the commercials say, Here. We. Go.

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