Can Cardinals Escape from Pirates Crowd, Momentum, Francisco Liriano?

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Can Cardinals Escape from Pirates Crowd, Momentum, Francisco Liriano?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The first 2013 Division Series between St. Louis and Pittsburgh has doubled as the first to reach a shift in momentum. With a 7-1 victory in St. Louis on Friday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates return home to raucous PNC Park with a series split and home-field advantage for Games 3 and 4 against the Cardinals.

When the Cardinals take the field on Sunday afternoon, they will become the sudden underdog, just days after a convincing Game 1 victory in St. Louis. In a five-game series, one game can change the narrative, momentum and feel of the entire matchup.

Behind the flame-throwing Gerrit Cole and power bat of Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh did exactly what they needed to do in St. Louis: gain a split of the series' first two contests. 

When looking ahead to the pitching forum, hostile environment of PNC Park, and recent history of this St. Louis group, it's going to take a major effort for the Cardinals to see this series return to Busch Stadium next week for a deciding Game 5.

As you undoubtedly noticed when turning on the TBS broadcast of Reds-Pirates on Monday night for the NL Wild Card Game, Pittsburgh's crowd created an uninviting atmosphere for the opposition. From the Pirates' version of the Terrible Towels to saluting Johnny Cueto to the loud and unforgiving atmosphere through the night, 21 years of Octobers without baseball manifested itself into one of the more dynamic home-field advantages in recent postseason memory. 

On Thursday, SNY and TBS analyst Ron Darling appeared on Mike Francesa's radio program on WFAN in New York City. He compared the Pittsburgh crowd to the old Yankee Stadium that rocked and "had ghosts" during the franchise's championship runs of the '70s and '90s. 

Although St. Louis, an NL Central rival of Pittsburgh, will not be going into unfamiliar territory, they did not play well at PNC Park during the regular season. During 19 head-to-head battles in 2013, the Cardinals posted a 9-10 record versus Pittsburgh. Considering the excellent year posted by the Pirates, that mark wasn't glaring.

In Pittsburgh, however, St. Louis went 3-7 in 10 games. Four of those losses came in consecutive days during a scheduled four-game series that became a five-game series after an early-season rainout added one to the ledger. Either way, the team that posted the best record in the National League truly struggled at PNC in 2013.

When looking at the Game 3 pitching matchup, St. Louis has a reason to hope, but Pittsburgh has a conviction for belief.

Although the Cardinals won only three total games in Pittsburgh all season, two of those victories came behind Joe Kelly. In a twist that surely was part of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's planning, Kelly will toe the rubber in Game 3, hoping to build on 14 innings of one-run baseball in PNC during the regular season.

Kelly will likely have to be that good, if not better, in order to defeat Francisco Liriano at home. Heading into the NL Wild Card battle with Cincinnati, baseball scribes brought up the dominance of the lefty in Pittsburgh this season.

Yet, even after a big performance against the Reds, the gravity of Liriano's dominance still hasn't hit home for most baseball fans. As the following chart shows, Liriano posted the second-best home ERA in the wild-card era among starting pitchers with at least 70 home innings pitched.

Best Home Pitching Seasons in Wild Card ERA (Min. 70 IP)
Pitcher Team Year IP GS ERA
Jose Fernandez Marlins 2013 98 15 1.19
Francisco Liriano Pirates 2013 73.2 11 1.47
Roger Clemens Blue Jays 1997 147.2 18 1.52
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 2013 122.2 17 1.54
Josh Johnson Marlins 2010 103.1 15 1.57
Matt Morris Cardinals 2001 122 18 1.62
Justin Verlander Tigers 2012 114.2 15 1.65
Kevin Brown Marlins 1996 138.1 19 1.69
Chris Young Padres 2007 85.1 13 1.69
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 2011 117.1 16 1.69

Baseball-Reference

The Francisco Liriano that dominated during 11 regular-season and one postseason start in Pittsburgh wasn't just good, he was as good as any starting pitcher at home in nearly two full decades. When factoring in St. Louis' bottom-five hitting production against opposing left-handed pitchers (.672 team OPS), it's hard to imagine many Cardinals crossing home plate on early Sunday evening.

If Pittsburgh does hold serve in Game 3, the pressure and potential elimination will fall squarely on the Cards' shoulders in Game 4. While the narrative will give them little chance after back-to-back losses and in the raucous Pittsburgh venue, don't underestimate the resolve of this St. Louis group.

While the pitching battle for Game 4, Charlie Morton vs. Michael Wacha, seems to be a tossup, it's the big-game and October acumen that will give them more than a puncher's chance to bring this series to a deciding Game 5 back to Busch Stadium.

In both the 2011 and 2012 postseasons, featuring many of the same players as on the current roster, St. Louis faced three do-or-die elimination games away from home. It's fair to call attention to their pedestrian 43-38 road record this past season, but don't forget those major postseason moments away from home. 

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First, it was Game 5 of the NLDS in 2011. As brilliantly recalled by Bob Nightengale of USA Today in September, the fate of two franchises changed on the night Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay and the Phillies, 1-0.

Then, there was the opening act of the 2012 postseason in Atlanta. In what became the inaugural Wild Card Game, St. Louis eschewed home-field advantage but won thanks to Braves miscues.

Lastly, St. Louis turned clutch into an art during Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS in Washington. As a stunned Nationals crowd looked on, a 6-0 lead at one point for the home team turned into a four-run ninth inning and stunning 9-7 victory for St. Louis.

By winning Game 2 on the road and returning home to Pittsburgh with Liriano ready to roll, the Pirates have sent a message and changed the momentum of the NLDS. Yet, it's going to take everything they have to actually knock out St. Louis. As we've seen in recent years, the Cards are very, very resilient.

Monday morning may begin with the Pirates holding a commanding 2-1 lead, but those final 27 outs are going to be a chore for the upstarts from Pittsburgh to finally record.

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