Adam Wainwright didn't need much of a cushion, but the St. Louis Cardinals made sure to provide him with one.
Carlos Beltran hit a three-run home run to ignite a seven-run third inning and Wainwright allowed just three hits, as the Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-1 in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series.
Buoyed by the early cushion his offense provided, Wainwright made quick work of Pittsburgh throughout the night. He threw just under 70 percent of his 105 pitches for strikes, fanned nine Pirates and allowed a single run over his seven innings of work.
Avoiding free passes the entire night, Wainwright faced three batters over the minimum and allowed only one runner to reach scoring position. The Cardinals bullpen closed Pittsburgh out with consecutive scoreless innings in the eighth and ninth to close it out.
The outing marks a stark contrast to the last time Wainwright was on the NLDS stage. In that series-deciding contest against the Washington Nationals, he gave up six runs over 2.1 innings, nearly taking the loss before the St. Louis offense scored four in the ninth inning runs to get a 9-7 victory.
St. Louis again scored nine runs in support of its starter—only this time he didn't need all that much. And considering Pittsburgh's trajectory heading into Thursday night, that's a bit of a surprise.
The Pirates lineup came into Thursday evening's NLDS opener red hot. They had hit 11 home runs in their last three games, including three in their wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday.
Pedro Alvarez hit a deep blast to right field in the fifth inning, but Wainwright served as a coolant for the rest of the Pittsburgh lineup. Wild-card heroes Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin combined to go 0-for-6, and National League MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen managed nondescript singles in the fourth and ninth innings but little else.
Although it's difficult to imagine any team defeating Wainwright on Thursday, Pirates starter A.J. Burnett put his team six feet deep before they could even start creating offensive momentum. All over the place with his command, the 36-year-old righty was pulled before recording an out in the third inning. He threw 38 of his 72 pitches for strikes, with many of those balls over the plate getting hit hard and sprayed all over the Busch Stadium field.
The fateful third inning started with a walk to Wainwright and a single to Matt Carpenter, both of whom came home on Beltran's blast. The Cardinals outfielder's home run was measured at 443 feet, the third longest by a left-handed hitter in stadium history.
Rattled by Beltran's blast, Burnett subsequently gave up a double to Matt Holliday, hit Matt Adams, and then walked Yadier Molina and Jon Jay to score a run. David Freese then unloaded the bases by scoring Adams and Molina on a single and advancing Jay home on a Marlon Byrd error.
It was the first time a team scored seven runs in a postseason inning since the Detroit Tigers in 2011. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle pulled Burnett after Freese's single, his night ending as a raucous crowd gave him a Bronx cheer on the way out.
Thursday night's outing continues a career full of questionable playoff starts for Burnett. In seven career postseason starts, Burnett now holds a 2-3 record with a 6.37 earned run average. All of Burnett's previous playoff appearances came during his three-year stint with the New York Yankees.
Though Burnett has undergone a career renaissance in his two years with the Pirates, Thursday proved some of those inconsistencies can still rear their head at the worst time.
Jeanmar Gomez relieved Burnett, giving up two unearned runs over four innings. Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris also pitched well, but the Cardinals had already done their damage. With a seven-run lead and the Pirates flailing at his buckling curves, the subsequent 5.5 innings after the first played like two teams that new the result was already decided.
Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals will have much time to reflect, however. Friday's Game 2 is expected to have its first pitch at 1:07 p.m. ET. Lance Lynn will be on the bump for the Cardinals, with the highly touted Gerrit Cole making his first postseason start.
Player of the Game: Adam Wainwright (SP, St. Louis Cardinals)
We already covered a bit why Wainwright's outing was so impressive in the recap. The Pirates came in having won four straight over the division rival Reds to advance to the NLDS, and did so in a somewhat uncharacteristic fashion. Built on solid pitching and eking out close games, Pittsburgh had suddenly morphed into the Bash Bros.
Wainwright made Pittsburgh look more like the club that nearly squandered its playoff spot at the beginning of September. He was in command of his pitches the entire night.
It's certainly always easier to pitch with a massive lead. After two innings of close ball, Wainwright could have taken a few miles per hour off his fastball and coasted to an easy decision. Credit the Cardinals ace for keeping his mind 100 percent focused on the task at hand. He treated every at bat like the game was separated by a run and showed why he'd probably be the NL Cy Young winner if Clayton Kershaw hadn't had one of the best pitching seasons in recent baseball history.
The Cardinals dominated from top to bottom, but no one was more spectacular than Wainwright.
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