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Since the start of the 2011 season, the St. Louis Cardinals have won two NL Central titles, but reached the playoffs all four seasons (and they’re off to a blazing start that gives them a very good chance of extending that streak). It’s not quite fair to say that they’ve dominated the division—their two wins have been narrow, by five combined games, whereas they lagged well behind the Brewers and Reds in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Still, there’s no question the Cardinals are the dominant power of the group.

To wit, they have steamrolled three of their four (and for two seasons, four of their five) divisional foes in head-to-head matchups over the last four-plus seasons. Here are the records of those encounters:

St. Louis Cardinals, 2011-2015, Head-to-Head Records

Team

W-L

Run Differential

Home W-L

Road W-L

Chicago

43-29

+86

26-11

17-18

Cincinnati

42-32

+63

25-11

17-21

Houston

24-10

+91

12-2

12-8

Milwaukee

48-29

+84

24-15

24-14

Pittsburgh

39-33

-6

25-13

14-20

Oh my.

The Pirates have bucked the trend, when it comes to the Cardinals and their division rivals. Instead of rolling over for the regional powerhouse, Pittsburgh has played them nearly to a draw. Of these 72 games, 26 were decided by a single run, and nine more by two. The Cardinals have won the last six games of the series—three to start September last year, and all three over this past weekend. However, they’ve only outscored the Bucs by seven runs in those six games. The last four were walk-off victories. This weekend set lasted 35 innings. The two teams seem to be constantly threatening to score, but rarely scoring, with good pitching stemming the tide of rallies mounted by deep, OBP-centric offenses. Tension builds, and the bubble never seems to pop.

If you ask me, a rivalry doesn’t need brawls. It doesn’t need subplots or hatred or wars of words and beanballs. It only needs good games, and ideally, games that tease out every detail of a team. I want to see teams draw out one another’s strengths and weaknesses, in equal measure, and make the strengths shine and make the weaknesses really hurt. I want teams who leave town in tatters after playing one another, exhausted not from an unusually strenuous effort—because every game counts the same in the standings, so you’d better bring the same intensity and passion to the park every day—but from the sheer tautness and difficulty of facing that opponent.

To that end, I offer this:

Pitcher Usage, Cardinals v. Pirates, 5/1-5/3

Pitcher

Pitches Thrown Fri.

Pitches Thrown Sat.

Pitches Thrown Sun.

Arquimedes Caminero

13

20

Antonio Bastardo

6

17

Jared Hughes

3

20

Tony Watson

16

13

Rob Scahill

31

40

Mark Melancon

11

Radhames Liz

39

Pitcher

Pitches Thrown Fri.

Pitches Thrown Sat.

Pitches Thrown Sun.

Randy Choate

5

6

2

Matt Belisle

12

13

Kevin Siegrist

16

9

Trevor Rosenthal

19

14

15

Mitch Harris

2

35

Sam Tuivailala

29

Michael Socolovich

15

Seth Maness

11

22

Carlos Villanueva

18

The Pirates catch a break. They have a day off Monday to lick their wounds and reset some pitch counts. Having lost five of six to their two chief rivals for NL Central dominance (the Cubs took two of three from Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field earlier in the week), they badly need the reprieve, but it should still be sufficient.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, now have a tall order to fill. The Cubs are coming to town, not playing terribly well (they’ve lost three of four, and their offense has had a rough stretch) but dangerous, and fresher by far:

Pitcher

Pitches Thrown Fri.

Pitches Thrown Sat.

Pitches Thrown Sun.

Zac Rosscup

11

Pedro Strop

11

18

Phil Coke

8

17

Gonzalez Germen

16

1

Jason Motte

23

Edwin Jackson

23

Hector Rondon

17

I’m using relievers here, because it’s a very easy way to measure mileage, and we can draw direct conclusions about possible effectiveness and/or availability from them, but of course, they’re a proxy for the entire team. The Cardinals have just played a very draining, difficult, long series. Now they have four straight games against a team whose only possible wear and tear, at the moment, is mental. For at least the first game, it seems likely that neither their closer nor either of their strong left-handed relievers will be available.

The Cardinals aren’t giving the wins back, though. One lesson we can learn from a great rivalry like the one the Pirates and Cardinals now have is that there are hardly any—there are probably no—Pyrrhic victories in baseball. Sure, asking a starter to throw 140 pitches in a game is reckless and damaging, in the broader scope, but it’s probably also not contributing anything to one’s chances of winning. Emptying a bench, canceling days off, asking a reliever to pitch on a third or fourth consecutive day, these are all unfortunate choices a manager must make sometimes. When a series forces managers to make them, though, and the result is still as beautiful as the baseball the Pirates and Cardinals played this weekend, that’s the mark of a great matchup. St. Louis might be ever so slightly staggered, but they took the Pirates’ best punch and are still standing. Pittsburgh is reeling, but if the standings dampen their Monday moods, they can take solace in the fact that they played really, really good baseball, and came out of the fight a bit cleaner than their opponent did. They can now get healthy against the directionless Reds, and wait for what figures to be an even more beleaguered Cardinals team to visit them at PNC Park starting this Friday.

Thank you for reading

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jfranco77
5/04
And let's not forget, the Cards already put Jordan Walden on the DL - biceps soreness after pitching in 12 of their first 21 games.
matrueblood
5/04
Yes. I didn't want to make the piece all about bullpen depletion; I really do want mostly to celebrate those games, and direct those who didn't see them to do that. But it's obviously a big thing for the Cards. Their pitching is getting thin.