There will be a decisive Game 5 in the National League Division Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.
A brilliant pitching performance from St. Louis rookie Michael Wacha is much of the reason why.
The 22-year-old took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez ended his bid for history with a home run that cut the lead to 2-1, which ended up being the final score of the game.
This is nothing new for the Cardinals, who have lived on the edge of elimination in the postseason over the past few seasons. They were down to their last strike against the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series before winning it all, trailed 6-0 after three innings against Washington in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, and played San Francisco to seven games in the National League Championship Series last year.
The Pirates are in uncharted waters, but that is now expected for a franchise that has been defying odds all season. They weren't supposed to be in the playoffs, weren't supposed to defeat Cincinnati in the Wild Card Game and certainly weren't supposed to go five games with St. Louis.
While there was some question about who would start the game for the Pirates, Clint Hurdle removed all the drama by naming rookie Gerrit Cole the starting pitcher.
St. Louis had no such questions about who would start this game. Ace Adam Wainwright, fittingly, will take the mound in the winner-take-all matchup.
Since these two teams know each other so well—Wednesday's game will be their 24th matchup this year—there won't be any mystery. It'll just be two teams throwing the best they have at each other, with one living to fight another day.
Let's take a look at the tale of the tape.
With the exception of Clayton Kershaw, who towers over every other pitcher in baseball right now, there might not be a better No. 1 to have on the mound in a do-or-die game than Wainwright.
Wainwright certainly has experience in big games and big moments. He led Major League Baseball with 241.2 innings pitched and had a stellar 6.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Against the Pirates this season, Wainwright was solid, but not dominant, though he did get better with each start. He started three games against the Bucs in the regular season, covering 21 innings with a 3.00 ERA, 15 hits allowed, six walks, three home runs and 20 strikeouts.
Here are the individual stat lines for Wainwright in each of his three starts against Pittsburgh this season:
|July 31||7||8||4 (4)||6-1|
|August 13||7||5||3 (3)||6-3|
|September 7||7||2||0 (0)||8-2|
That doesn't include Game 1 of the NLDS, in which Wainwright was brilliant, going seven innings with just one run allowed on three hits (one home run), no walks and nine strikeouts.
While those games do paint a strong picture for Wainwright, it does not tell us the whole story because each individual Pirates hitter has a different level of success—or failure—against the St. Louis workhorse.
Using the starting lineup Hurdle has used for the first four games, here is how the Pirates' bats have done against Wainwright in their careers:
Given what we know about the Pirates hitters who have been with the team long enough to accrue at-bats against Wainwright, these slash lines stack up about how you would expect. Andrew McCutchen has been fantastic, while Pedro Alvarez has struggled to consistently put the ball in play.
The most encouraging aspect for the Pirates is the depth of success the lineup has had against Wainwright. Yes, McCutchen has been great. But Neil Walker gives McCutchen someone to drive in, while Martin solidifies the bottom of the order.
Of course, the usual small-sample-size caveats apply when looking at an individual player against an individual pitcher. These numbers might tell us something, but it wouldn't be a shock to see Wainwright have another game like last Thursday.
One thing that surprised me about Pittsburgh's offense is that it actually performed better against left-handed starters in 2013.
That's a fairly wide gap, particularly in average and on-base percentage.
It's surprising because players like Pedro Alvarez (.537 OPS) and Russell Martin (.610 OPS) get eaten alive by southpaws.
Another aspect of Wainwright's game that doesn't get talked about enough is his ability to pitch two different styles. He is not a typical power pitcher in that he doesn't throw 95, but he finished a respectable 16th in strikeout rate (8.16 per nine innings) and third in total strikeouts (219) in the National League.
At the same time, Wainwright can also succeed by trusting his defense and letting his natural movement take over. He finished 11th in the NL with a ground-ball rate of 49.1 percent.
We could wax poetic about Wainwright all day, but there is another very impressive pitcher taking the mound in this game: Gerrit Cole.
Unfortunately, due to the fact he is a rookie, there isn't a huge sample by which we can judge Cole. He has 117.1 regular-season innings under his belt, but none of them came against St. Louis.
The one bit of evidence we do have for Cole against the Cardinals is very good.
It was Game 2 of the NLDS. He went into St. Louis and pitched six innings of one-run ball with two hits, one walk and five strikeouts.
There are a few stats for Cole that we can examine to see how he might fare against the Cardinals a second time around. First, like Wainwright, Cole generates a lot of ground balls. He has the same ratio as Waino entering Wednesday's game, 49.1 percent.
The difference comes when you look at the caliber of their stuff.
Wainwright's curveball is one of the best pitches in baseball, but Cole averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball and backs it up with a nasty changeup and a slider that sits around 90.
There were times after he was called up in June when Cole wasn't missing the number of bats you want to see from a pitcher with his stuff. That has changed over the last month, however.
|Month||K/9 IP Rate||K-BB Ratio|
It is so refreshing to watch a young starter go through that maturation process, where the results start matching the stuff. Some are able to come out of the gate firing, like Matt Harvey. But those pitchers are exceptions to the rule.
St. Louis' offense has not done particularly well this season against "power" pitchers, which Baseball Reference defines as pitchers in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks.
Cole doesn't technically fall into that category because he didn't accrue enough service time and didn't start to find his strikeout stuff until late in the year, but I think we can make an exception to put him in that group based on recent performance.
The Cardinals have posted a slash line of .229/,295/.363 against power pitchers. Against finesse pitchers, they were incredible with a .290/.353/.424 line.
Of the 783 runs the Cardinals scored this year, 14.2 percent (101) came against power pitchers. Compare that to 51.7 (405) percent against finesse pitchers.
Cole has found a second gear now that he is 100 innings into what appears to be a fruitful career. That's a good thing heading into this game, because the Cardinals have a lineup that doesn't strike out, ranking second in the NL behind San Francisco with 1,110 as a team in 2013.
Cole and the Cardinals also boast similar numbers when it comes to pitches swung at in the zone and out of the zone. The Pirates' young hurler gets 30.3 percent of swings out of the zone and 67.1 in the zone; St. Louis chases 30.1 percent of pitches out of the zone and goes after 65.8 percent in the zone.
One stat the Cardinals will certainly be keeping an eye on is Cole's performance in the first inning and his first time through the lineup.
|1st Time Through Order||-||.293||.330||.383||38-7|
You have to take advantage of Cole early, because he settles in after the first inning. His OPS against drops nearly .300 points from the first to second inning (.855 to .586) and over 150 points from the first time through the lineup to the second time (.713 to .550).
Hurdle made the decision to go with Cole likely due in part to A.J. Burnett's implosion in Game 1, but it also speaks to the performance of the rookie that an old-school manager would go with him in this spot.
It also doesn't hurt to know that Hurdle can turn to Burnett early in the game if for some reason Cole struggles.
Regardless of why the decision was made, this is the pitching matchup everyone wanted to see in this series.
The Pirates and Cardinals spent 162 games battling it out for the NL Central title, so it only seems fitting that their playoff series would come down to a fifth and final game.
What more could you ask for?
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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