Pirates counting on Cole, relief corps for big outs
Bucs' success predicated on pitchers delivering vs. Majors' top clutch-hitting team
ST. LOUIS -- Ballparks attract ghosts, sometimes in what seems like the blink of an eye.
The new Busch Stadium opened in 2006, adjacent to the old ballpark where Mark McGwire circled the bases after his 62nd home run on Sept. 8, 1998. Already it is impossible to walk through the doors without thinking about what happened to Neftali Feliz and Nelson Cruz, just as the sound of the ball off Ozzie Smith's bat would forever ring in the air at the old place, especially whenever anyone mentioned Tom Niedenfuer.
Remember Niedenfuer? He pitched 10 seasons, threw 653 innings and earned 97 saves, but 28 years later is remembered for one pitch -- the 1-2 fastball that Smith homered on to break a 2-2 tie in Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series, a snapshot in time that was voted by Cardinals fans as the "best moment" in the history of that multisport monstrosity under the Gateway Arch.
Niedenfuer's legacy was altered forever, by one swing of the Wizard's bat, even if the ball did only clear the fence "by about six inches," as Niedenfuer recalls it. Small margins can determine the future, especially between teams that are separated by such a razor-thin margin.
This will be the 24th time the Cardinals and Pirates have played each other this season, and the Bucs lead the series 12-11, with the Cards outscoring them, 102-99. While the first two games of the series were one-sided, it will be a surprise if winning this one doesn't require Jason Grilli and his brethren in the Shark Tank bullpen to survive some agonizing moments.
"The game is going to be out there for somebody to win it," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said Tuesday. "You've got to make plays; you've got to execute pitches; you've got to have quality at-bats. And every once in a while, something completely apart from that could happen. You don't know, whether it be a rundown [or whatever]. That's what makes it so exciting, I believe."
Brilliant at Busch
The Pirates have been a terrific story all season, with delicious twists over the last two weeks. They've won eight of their last 11 games -- including a season-ending sweep at Cincinnati and the win-or-stay home NL Wild Card Game against the Reds -- and now they face a test that will go a long way in determining if they're remembered as footnotes or the leading men of October.
You'll hear a lot that in Division Series Game 5, the visiting team has gone 5-2 over the last two seasons, with only the 2012 Yankees and '11 Brewers defending their home field. That will get a lot of play in Pittsburgh sports bars, but it will not do much for Gerrit Cole, the Bucs' incredibly gifted 23-year-old starter, or relievers like Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson.
Luckily for them, they will not have to raise their game. They'll merely have to cover a little more distance on the tightrope they've been walking beautifully.
While the Cardinals were noted for their clutch hitting during the regular season -- leading the Majors with a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position during the regular season, 48 points higher than the next best team, the Tigers -- they enter Game 5 as a frustrated group of hitters.
Leadoff man Matt Carpenter, the igniter, is 1-for-15 in this series. David Freese, the guy seemingly born to hit in October, is 2-for-13. Jon Jay is also 2-for-13.
If not for hitting a home run in every game, the Cards would really be hurting. They are 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position in the series, with a three-run homer by Beltran off A.J. Burnett and a two-run Beltran single off Francisco Liriano the two big blows.
The Pirates' pitching staff has been consistently getting the big outs, which is how you win postseason series.
"Everything in this game seems to be contagious," Hurdle said. "Everybody talks about hitting being contagious and not pitching being contagious. For me, everything starts off the mound, and we have pitched the ball extremely well this year."
Hurdle essentially rules Burnett and Liriano out of consideration for emergency roles in Game 5, and Charlie Morton is not getting into action on one day's rest. That means that the guys who could be asked to pitch under intense heat before a predictably noisy Busch Stadium crowd have held opposing batters hitless in 13 at-bats with men in scoring position this postseason, including the NL Wild Card Game win.
It breaks down like this: Jeanmar Gomez, 0-for-6; Watson, 0-for-3; Grilli, 0-for-2, and Cole, 0-for-2.
"I do believe pitchers feed off one another as well," Hurdle said. "The starters take it upon themselves to get us deep in the game so we can use the bullpen when we want to, not when we have to.
"Those guys in the bullpen are always bound by a certain set of high-level expectations they put on themselves. I mean, they would rather give up a small body part than let an inherited runner score, at least that's the way our guys look at it."
For as effective as Cole was in winning Game 2 after the Cardinals had rolled to a 9-1 win in the opener, he only worked six innings. The rookie threw only 86 pitches, his lowest total since Aug. 8. Cole could work into the seventh, maybe the eighth, on Wednesday if he can pick up where he left off in Game 2.
But at the end of the night, unless one team's hitters take over, it is going to come down to Cole handing off to Grilli and the relievers, who could find themselves needing a handful of tough outs to do something that nobody has done since Mickey Lolich in the 1968 World Series.
That's how long it has been since the visiting team won the ultimate game of a playoff series in St. Louis. The Cards are 4-0 in deciding games at home since Lolich beat Bob Gibson.
Who wants to be a hero?
"I think it ends up boiling down to a handful of pitches," Cole said. "You know, later in the game, [a handful of pitches] that could swing the momentum one way or the other. It's just about putting yourself in a position to make those pitches and not trying to do too much when those opportunities present themselves."
As Neil Walker said about laying off Adam Wainwright's dive-bombing curveballs, "easier said than done."
Sure, there will be bigger games in October than this one. But more than likely, only for the pitching staff that gets the biggest outs the 24th time that the Pirates play the Cardinals.