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October 9, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game Five Preview: Pirates at Cardinals

by Ben Carsley

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Pirates (Gerrit Cole) vs. Cardinals (Adam Wainwright) – 8:00 p.m. EST
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 65.1%, Pirates 34.0%

Pirates vs. Wainwright (R)

Cardinals vs. Cole (R)

Starling Marte, LF (R)

Matt Carpenter, 2B (L)

Neil Walker, 2B (S)

Carlos Beltran, RF (S)

Andrew McCutchen, CF (R)

Matt Holiday, LF (R)

Justin Morneau, 1B (L)

Matt Adams, 1B (L)

Marlon Byrd, RF (R)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Pedro Alvarez, 3B (L)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Russell Martin, C (R)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Clint Barmes, SS (R)

Daniel Descalso, SS (L)

Gerrit Cole, P (R)

Adam Wainwright, P (R)

This is about as good as it gets.

After a total of 23 games between the Cardinals and Pirates this season, St. Louis has 11 victories, while Pittsburgh has 12. Game One of this NLDS saw the Cardinals ride their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, to a convincing victory. The Pirates returned the favor behind Gerrit Cole in Game Two.

After more evenly matched outings in Games Three and Four, we get to witness the Cardinals and Pirates duke it out one more time in 2013, and each team will be putting its best foot forward on the mound.

If you’re looking for another game that can stand up to the Justin Verlander, Sonny Gray duel that took place in Oakland last week, this might be the closest we’ll get.

Pittsburgh’s lineup was at Wainwright’s mercy in the first game of the series. The Cardinals’ ace threw seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts and no walks, yielding only a solo homerun to Pedro Alvarez. That was one of just three hits Wainwright allowed on the day, as the right-hander continued his dominant season.

Several of the players in Pittsburgh’s starting lineup have actually had their fair share of success against Wainwright in the past. McCutchen has posted an OPS of 1.151 against the righty in 34 PA, and Walker, Martin and Barmes have fared well, too. Morneau and Marte haven’t had much luck in very small samples, while Alvarez has historically had some trouble with Wainwright, his homer in Game One notwithstanding. Still, it’s tough to bet against Wainwright and his 2.55 regular season FIP, even with the massive workload he’s taken on this season.

The Pirates’ best hope to advance to the NLCS may come not from their offense but from the right arm of Cole, whom Pittsburgh is entrusting with this elimination game instead of A.J. Burnett.

The technical term for what Cole did in his first start in Game Two of this series is “shove.” The rookie threw six innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts and one walk in his first postseason start ever. Just like how Wainwright was victimized by a solo homer in his stellar start, Cole’s only blemish came courtesy of a solo shot from Yadier Molina.

Cole’s start on Friday was his first against the Cardinals, so there’s no point in rehashing who’s hit him well and who hasn’t. However, through this point in the playoffs, Beltran is the only Cardinal with an OPS in excess of .800, which illustrates how good Pittsburgh has been at shutting down baseball’s third-best offense during the regular season.

Perhaps the only knock on Cole to this point in his career is that he doesn’t go deep into games—none of his starts have surpassed 7 1/3 innings and he’s pitched at least seven innings just six times—but given that the Pirates will be working with a full bullpen, that shouldn’t matter much.

PECOTA has the Cardinals at nearly two-to-one favorites to win this game, but I think that’s underselling Cole. Plus, while small sample size caveats here are obvious, Pittsburgh’s offense has outhit St. Louis’ to this point, putting up a .719 OPS compared to the Cards’ mark of .612.

With the two highest-upside arms starting for each team and with all hands on deck in each bullpen, this has all the makings of an excellent game. The Pirates’ late-game trio of Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli has been nearly perfect so far in October, while the Cardinals’ bevy of hard-throwing relievers looms large.

My Prediction: Cole rises to the challenge and subdues a potent Cardinals lineup, but Wainwright is just too good in the end. The Cardinals win a close game and advance to face the Dodgers in the NLCS.

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

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