Just like their regular season series, the NLDS matchup between the Cardinals and Pirates was as close as could be, with St. Louis needing the full five games to advance to the NLCS for the third consecutive year. Here are five observations from the five-game set.
1. You don't want to face Adam Wainwright in the playoffs.
Wainwright's Game 5 start was his sixth career postseason start. It was the fifth start in which he allowed one earned run and the fourth in which he went at least seven innings. The only real clunker Wainwright has had in his postseason career was Game 5 in last year's NLDS against the Nationals, and luckily for the Cardinals, Gio Gonzalez had just as much trouble as Waino did. The Dodgers' pitching is going to get most of the attention in the NLCS (and rightfully so with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke), but Wainwright is more than capable of going toe-to-toe in a pitching duel with anyone. Now a couple seasons removed from the Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2011 season, Wainwright looks like his old self, and that curveball looks as unhittable as ever.
2. Gerrit Cole has arrived.
If his regular season numbers as a 22-year-old rookie (3.22 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 3.57 K/BB ratio in 117.1 innings) weren't enough to convince you, his two playoff starts should — the former #1 overall pick is legit, and is going to be very good for a long time. Cole followed up an impressive playoff debut in Game 2 (6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) by matching Wainwright nearly every step of the way, with the exception of one mistake pitch that cost him a two-run home run to David Freese. Cole's night ended earlier than it should have when Clint Hurdle had to pinch-hit for him, but his 5 IP 3 H 2 ER 1 BB 5 K line was more than respectable for a rookie in an elimination game. Perhaps the most impressive part of his Game 5 start was the jam he worked out of in the 4th inning. Facing a second-and-third, one out situation, Cole induced a ground ball to second that got an out at home when the Cardinals ran the contact play, then struck out Freese looking to end the threat. Cole celebrated with a yell and a big fist pump. It probably won't be the last time he'll get a chance to slam the door in a postseason game.
3. Neil Walker is from Pittsburgh and didn't have a hit in the NLDS.
Hey, did you know Neil Walker was from Pittsburgh? It's true. I don't know why it wasn't mentioned more. It's unfair to criticize performances in a five-game sample, but outside of their Game 2 romp, the Pirates had trouble scoring runs, and it's hard to score runs when your #2 hitter goes .000/.095/.000. Walker got on base twice the entire series. Starling Marte wasn't much better in the five-game stretch (.053/.143/.211), leaving few chances for MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen to do much damage. To be fair to Walker, he was a significant contributor in the Bucs' wildcard play-in win over Cincinnati (2-for-5 with an RBI double and a run scored), but Pittsburgh needed more production out of the spots ahead of McCutchen if they were going to win this series.
4. The Cardinals may be the most complete team in the postseason.
Wainwright is going to be extremely tough to beat, and he'll likely get two starts in any series. The 2-3-4-5 of Carlos Beltran-Matt Holliday-Matt Adams-Yadier Molina may be scarier than any foursome still in the tournament. With the exception of Carlos Martinez's hiccup in Game 3, the bullpen has been more impressive than anyone outside of maybe Boston (and even the Red Sox had a bump in the road with Tampa Bay's walkoff home run in Game 3). They typically don't make mistakes that tend to cost you games, and yes, it feels like they always catch a break somewhere along the way — but they also capitalize on those breaks. Mike Matheny has seemingly inherited Tony La Russa's knack for making the right pitching change at the right moment, and has the plethora of arms to play matchups like La Russa always did. Anyone who beats the Cardinals in a seven-game series is going to earn it.
5. The Pirates will stick around.
Midnight may have struck for Cinderella this year, but there's reason to believe the Pirates won't go another 21 years before reaching the playoffs again. The NL Central figures to be one of baseball's toughest divisions over the next few years (especially if the Cubs continue to stockpile talent and improve), but like the Cardinals, Pittsburgh has the farm system to ensure they stay in the playoff picture for the foreseeable future. They may still take a step back next season (there were so many unexpected performances and enough questions at key positions), but they should make a return trip to the postseason sometime soon. A comparison may be the 2008 Brewers, who made their first playoff appearance since 1982, lost in the NLDS, and became one of the NL's best teams in 2011. The wait for a return trip to October may not be that long for the Pirates, though, considering the reinforcements they have arriving soon. The second wildcard spot will help, too — at the very least, we can expect the Pirates to play meaningful September games for years to come.