Next Steps for the Pittsburgh Pirates to Win the NLDS
Although they won the season series 10-9, the Pirates will have to find a way to make some adjustments if they are going to win the NLDS. St. Louis won the final four meetings and overtook Pittsburgh in the NL Central.
Now the two division rivals will face off in a best-of-five series.
Pittsburgh enters on a four-game winning streak, all against Cincinnati. It can only hope that the time off will make the Cardinals rusty.
Here are the steps that the Pirates must take in order to beat St. Louis.
*All stats are courtesy of MLB.com
Starting Pitchers Set the Tone...
As the first two one-game playoffs have shown this year, starting pitchers who set the tone early have made it tough for opponents to rally.
Tampa Bay jumped out to a first-inning lead on Monday and never looked back. Francisco Liriano set down the first nine Reds hitters while his team gave him a 2-0 lead. His dominant start made it impossible for the Reds to get any sort of rally going.
Liriano went 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in 24 innings against St. Louis this season, but he won't be able to go until at least Game 3 on Sunday. In the first two games, the Pirates need their other starters to have big performances.
A.J. Burnett went 3-1 against the Cardinals this year, and he will get a chance to set the tone for the series. His last start at Busch Stadium didn't go too well, but he has the talent to lead his team to a victory. After all, he struck out 37 batters in 34.1 innings against the Cardinals this year.
Rookie Gerrit Cole did not face the Cardinals this season. However, he went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts. The 23-year-old is on an incredible run, but he will have to handle the pressure of pitching in the postseason.
Those two pitchers are likely to get the first two starts of the NLDS, and it is important for both of them to hold the Cardinals' offense to nothing in the first few innings while the offense gets going.
In their 10 wins against the Cardinals this season, the Pirates have allowed only six runs through the first three innings. They allowed 31 runs in the first three innings in nine losses.
Pittsburgh has won with great starting pitching this year. It will be up to the starters to get the team off the field quickly in the early innings to set the tone.
...and the Shark Tank Slams the Door
In Pittsburgh's wins over St. Louis this season, the bullpen has allowed only two runs. That's slamming the door shut when the team has the lead.
The starters have to be great early in order to get the team in position to win, but it's the relievers who don't even give the Cardinals a shot at a comeback.
When the Pirates have the lead in the eighth inning, the game is over. They are fortunate enough to have two shutdown relievers in the back of the bullpen: Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.
Both relievers made the NL All-Star team and have been dominant closing out games this year. Grilli has converted 33 of 35 save opportunities this season, and Melancon has 16 saves with 26 holds in 2013.
There are more strong relievers, but those two lead the way.
Pittsburgh had the second-most saves in the majors and finished with the third-best bullpen ERA. If they have a lead late in a game, the team needs the relievers to do what they have done all year.
Be Aggressive on the Bases
The Pirates were an average team in terms of stealing bases. They stole 94 bases in the regular season, but being aggressive on the bases doesn't necessarily mean just stealing.
Look, Starling Marte (41 SB) and Andrew McCutchen (27) are about the only real threats to swipe a base. With Yadier Molina behind the plate, the Pirates aren't going to try many steals.
Pittsburgh has to look to take the extra base on hits and outs. When a ball is hit to the outfield, runners need to be tagging up and forcing the outfielders to make plays. Going from first to third on a single can be just as effective as the hitter getting a double.
Runs are hard to come by in the postseason. Taking an extra base could be the difference between advancing and going home early.
Midseason Acquisitions Must Come Through at the Plate
Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin were huge acquisitions in the offseason. However, it's the midseason acquisitions, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, that will have to make an impact if the Pirates are going to make it to the NLCS.
Byrd has been spectacular since joining Pittsburgh. The veteran is hitting .318/.357/.486 with three home runs and 17 RBI in the final 30 games of the regular season. In his first postseason game, he opened the scoring with a solo shot to left that gave his team the lead for good.
Morneau hit only .260 and failed to hit a homer in 25 games with the Pirates. He also drove in only three runs, which is not enough for a guy who is hitting fourth.
These two acquisitions were brought in to provide protection for Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh needs Morneau to step up if it is going to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Until those two can consistently show that they can beat teams, opposing pitchers can pitch around McCutchen. If they begin to drive in runs, teams will be forced to pitch to McCutchen.
Defend Home Field
Playing at home has been the biggest reason for Pittsburgh's success. The Pirates finished with 50 home wins, which ranked third in the National League. They finished second in the NL with 44 road wins, but the Cardinals ranked second in all of baseball with 54 home wins.
Against the Cardinals in the regular season, the Pirates went 7-3 at PNC Park and 3-6 at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won the final four, and five of the last six, meetings in St. Louis. With Games 1, 2 and 5 of the NLDS being played in St. Louis, the Pirates need to find a way to win at least one game, if not more.
The Cardinals ranked right behind the Pirates with 43 road victories. Pittsburgh added to its dominant performance at home with a win over the Reds on Tuesday, so it will need to continue to defend its home stadium. Winning Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh would make it so the Pirates would only have to win one game in St. Louis.
If the Pirates can find a way to split the first two games, they would have a chance to close out the series in Pittsburgh. As the baseball world saw in the Wild Card game, the Pirates are tough to beat when they score first at home.