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October 7, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game 4: Cardinals 2, Pirates 1

by R.J. Anderson

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History was five outs away. That's how close Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha was to no-hitting the Pirates in Game 4 of the NL Divisional Series.

That's when Wacha fell behind in the count 3-1 to Pedro Alvarez. Rather than submit and walk Alvarez, thereby bringing the tying run to the plate, Wacha decided to throw a competitive pitch. Earlier in the game Wacha had fallen behind Alvarez 3-0 and thrown a fastball; the pitch caught too much of the plate but Alvarez flied out anyway. This time Wacha and Yadier Molina agreed on a fastball down and away. Wacha failed to execute and the pitch wound up knee-high over the plate; Alvarez didn't get too far underneath the ball this time, and deposited the ball in to the right-center field bleachers.

Alvarez's home run ended the no-hit and shutout bid, but was not enough to keep the Cardinals from victory. In fact, the home run represented the Pirates' lone hit in a game where neither side mustered many baserunners. The Cardinals walked four times and tallied three hits against Pirates starter Charlie Morton, but failed to reach base against Pittsburgh's trio of relievers. The Pirates hitters, for their part, walked three times in addition to the homer. Were it not for a Matt Holliday home run in the sixth inning, Alvarez's shot might have been the story of the game.

But since Holliday crushed a 2-2 Morton offering, Wacha is the story instead. The former first-round pick from Texas A&M relied heavily on his fastball, though he mixed 25 secondary offerings among his 96 pitches. He pounded the zone with each offering, topping 55 percent strikes (excluding balls in play) on all of his pitch types. He was efficient and commanded his pitches well to his glove side, as he played keepaway from a Pirates lineup heavy with right-handed hitters. All told, Wacha fanned nine batters, and though many of his balls in play were lifted, few felt as though they were serious threats.

The one situation the Pirates would undoubtedly like to have back came in the eighth inning, once Wacha had been removed in favor of Carlos Martinez. Josh Harrison checked in to pinch-run for Russell Martin and elected to make a break for second. He could've—and likely would've—swiped the bag thanks to a less-than-stellar throw from Molina if not for one thing: he slid too early. The premature act slowed Harrison down and made it easy for Matt Carpenter to recover and apply the tag. Otherwise, it'll be tough for the Pirates to play the what-if game; Wacha was good—good enough to nearly spin a no-hitter.

As a result, the series moves on to a decisive Game Five on Wednesday. The Cardinals are starting Adam Wainwright, whose brilliance in Game 1 set the tone for a pitching-rich set, while the Pirates are bypassing the veteran A.J. Burnett in favor of Gerrit Cole. Wainwright has been in these big games before, while the Pirates envisioned Cole pitching in his fair share when they drafted him first overall in 2011. Come Wednesday, we'll see who can make good on their opportunity.

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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