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October 4, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game One Recap: Cardinals 9, Pirates 1

by R.J. Anderson

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It sounds trite, but some games come down to the starting pitchers. Game 1 of the NLDS between the Pirates and Cardinals sure did.

A.J. Burnett started a postseason game for the first time since 2011, the nadir of his Yankees career. Burnett has pitched well for the Pirates these past two years; so well you forget how they were able to acquire him for cheap. Unfortunately, Game 1 reminded us. Burnett never stood a chance: his location was poor from the get-go and he struggled with his breaking ball. The evening's surprise was not Burnett exiting before the third inning ended, but Burnett making it to the third inning without allowing a run. That changed quick, as did the Pirates' chances of victory.

Coincidentally, Burnett's downfall began with his counterpart, Adam Wainwright. Wainwright battled Burnett for a seven-pitch walk to start the bottom of the third inning, which was followed by a Matt Carpenter single then a Carlos Beltran home run. By the time the inning ended the Cardinals were ahead 7-0 and the Pirates were thinking about tomorrow.

As for the other starter, Wainwright did some positive things on the mound in addition to his work at the plate. There are a few ways to measure how good a pitcher is in a single game: runs allowed, strikeout-to-walk ratio, a mixture thereof, and so on. No matter what you weigh, Wainwright was good. He yielded one run—a Pedro Alvarez home run—in seven innings, fanned nine batters and walked none, and coerced four grounders for each ball in the air.

Wednesday's pre-series press conferences featured an odd line of questioning about whether Wainwright was relieved to avoid the Reds—a team that battered him twice in the regular season. If he viewed the Pirates as toothless foes he failed to show it. Wainwright threw his big curveball time and again, about a third of the time—one of his highest rates on the season. He used it well, with six of his nine strikeouts coming on the deuce, and each of the five curves the Pirates put in play went for outs.

That was that. The Cardinals won in a boat race, in large part because Wainwright outpitched Burnett. Sometimes that's all it takes.

  • Mike Matheny lifted Wainwright for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, after the two-time All-Star topped the 100-pitch mark. Matheny then turned things over to Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal—average regular-season fastball velocities of 98 mph—just because he could. The Cardinals do not lack firepower in their bullpen.
  • One other thing about Martinez: he used to be a shortstop, in case you couldn't tell.
  • Clint Hurdle's only big managerial decision revolved around when to pull Burnett. Perhaps he waited too long, or perhaps the string of elimination games skewed our perspective. The Pirates were ensured two more games no matter the outcome. By waiting, Hurdle showed confidence in his starter, and lessened the burden on his bullpen. It didn't work, leaving Hurdle with the worst possible outcome.
  • Luckily, for Hurdle, Jeanmar Gomez did well over four innings of work, and minimized the workload for the other Pittsburgh relievers.
  • Game 2, which starts at 1 p.m. on Friday, will feature Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn. There's no sense billing this as a must-win game just yet, but winning three games in a row, including one started by Wainwright, is a tall task.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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