The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't to be taken lightly. But if the St. Louis Cardinals are able to play like they're capable, they ought to be able to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Keys to winning their National League Division Series battle with the Bucs:
1) Adam Wainwright has to be the elite starting pitcher he's capable of being. He's 83-44 over his last five seasons pitched with a 2.98 ERA so we all know what he's capable of doing during the regular season. But Wainwright has fought the wars in the postseason, too with a 2-0 record with a 2.48 ERA and four saves in 13 playoff and World Series games. When he starts in October, Wainwright averages 7 2/3 innings per appearances. If he can pitch like he has in his last few starts and win both of his NLDS games, the Cardinals could have an easy route to the next round, needing only one win in the other three games. If Wainwright loses, that's a lot of additional pressure on the Birds' younger starters.
2) One of Wainwright's most spectacular post season appearances came when he was pressed into service as closer his rookie year. He punched the Cardinals ticket to the World Series by punching out current St. Louis right fielder Carlos Beltran with a full count, the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning of game seven of the 2006 NLCS. But, despite that blemish on his record, Beltran is one of the best post season baseball players in the history of the game. Beltran is a .363 batter in October baseball with 14 homers and 25 RBIs in 34 games. He's had three playoff series with a .417 batting average or better including the NLDS last year. Beltran slumped late in the season and his average dipped below the .300 mark. But if he can keep the playoff magic alive, he could be a major source of offense for the Cardinals who miss Allen Craig who is out with an ankle injury.
3) Handling lefty pitchers is going to be something that will either make or break the Cardinals this post season. The Cardinals have always been somewhat vulnerable to southpaws. And the loss of righty slugger Craig is only going to make that worse. Lefty Matt Adams has done a nice job of filling in at first base. But the problem is that the Cardinals bench is extremely bare, especially when it comes to righty impact hitters. When the opposing manager brings in a lefty to face Adams there isn't going to be much St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny can do to counter. Since the bench isn't going to be able to offer much, the Redbirds starting eight are going to have to be extra productive regardless of the match up.