The 2-1 St. Louis Cardinals will face their 2013 playoff foes, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a three-game set on the road before coming to Busch Stadium Monday for their home opener.
The Redbirds were 9-10 against the Pirates during the regular season but they defeated Pittsburgh 3-2 in their National League Division Series. While this series is early in the season, it could set the tone for an intense summer battle between the two top competitors in the National League Central.
Shelby Miller, who last pitched in a game that counted when he threw one inning of relief in the NLDS against Pittsburgh, will start the series opener Friday night. Miller, who was 15-9 in his rookie campaign, had a rough time with the Pirates. He was 0-4 with a 5.32 ERA against the Pittsburghers. He allowed 29 hits and nine walks in 22 innings. Miller was 5-0 against the other teams in the NL Central.
While this series doesn't carry as much weight as the last one between the two teams, the Cardinals better not take it lightly. Pittsburgh's players and fans sure aren't. Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote:
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Please, repeat after me: It's a long, long season. But that doesn't mean these games shouldn't be enjoyed, even savored, after 20 years of baseball hell in Pittsburgh. These three have extra intrigue because the Pirates and Cardinals met in the playoffs last season. Hold your thumb and forefinger an inch apart. That's how close the Pirates were to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. They won Games 2 and 3 and had a chance to shut down the Cardinals in Game 4 at home only to see Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha pitch one of the great postseason games of all time in a 2-1 win. The Cardinals closed out the series in Game 5 in St. Louis on their way to the World Series.
The Cardinals were 20-16 in one-run games last season, which accounts for about a fifth of the games on their schedule. This year every game so far has been a one-run contest. It's a small sample size. But, with the Redbirds' thin middle relief corps, playing too many tight games could become a factor.
With Randy Choate as lefty specialist and Pat Neshak performing the same role against righties, their innings will be limited. If and when Jason Motte comes back from Tommy John surgery, he'll almost certainly be limited in how frequently he can pitch. Despite his abilities as a starter, for some reason Carlos Martinez seems to pitch poorly in the second inning of extended relief appearances.
It's easy to imagine with these limitations that Redbirds relievers are going to be over-exposed. The bullpen remains the most likely area for the Cardinals to try to improve themselves.
MLB has announced the 25 most popular player jerseys crack the list. Adam Wainwright's number 50 Cardinals top is the 17th most popular uniform top in terms of sales. Catcher Yadier Molina's jersey is the only top of a player who doesn't call a major market home to crack the top 5.
Fittingly, Molina ranks number 4 on the list. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox rank first and second. Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees is third and Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers is fifth.