Pirates-Cardinals. Game 5. Sounds like a good time for our first running diary of the postseason.
Two key stats heading into the game: (1) Adam Wainwright has that great curveball -- batters hit just .171 against it in the regular season -- and the Pirates were 27th in the majors in the regular season in batting average against curveballs; (2) Gerrit Cole has allowed one hit against off-speed pitches since the beginning of September. I’m expecting a low-scoring game, with maybe a bloop and a blast being the difference.
First inning: The talk in Pittsburgh was whether Clint Hurdle should move around his lineup since Starling Marte and Neil Walker, the first two players in the lineup, are a combined 1-for-32 in the series. Hurdle’s rationale to keep things as is: “They’re due.” I see this one both ways, but for me the biggest reason to shuffle the lineup would be that Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin, hitting sixth and seventh, have been having good at-bats all postseason. Why not move them up in the order to try to get them an extra at-bat? Cleanup hitter Justin Morneau hasn’t homered since joining the Pirates (although with a .363 OBP, maybe it would be wise to move him into Walker’s spot). You could hit Morneau second, move Alvarez to the cleanup spot, keep Marlon Byrd in the five-hole and move Martin up to sixth, sliding Walker down to seventh.
Anyway, Wainwright throws two bad curves to Walker (who walks on a 3-2 pitch), but recovers to strike out Andrew McCutchen on a lovely hammer and get Morneau to ground out.
There were reports out there that the Cardinals were licking their chops to get at Cole again, who allowed just two hits and one run (a Yadier Molina home run) in six innings in his Game 2 effort. The Cards didn’t face Cole in the regular season, so maybe having seen him they will have a better approach. Good luck. In his past nine starts, Cole has allowed more than two runs just once.
An easy one-two-three inning for Cole. He gets Carlos Beltran, Mr. October, with a 96 mph called strike at the knees and then what I think was a 90 mph changeup that Beltran pops to short (MLB.com lists the pitch as a cutter, but Cole doesn’t throw one).
Yes, I said 90 mph changeup.
Second inning: Byrd gets a leadoff single but Alvarez stings a line drive right to second baseman Matt Carpenter, with Byrd doubled off after he broke for second on contact. The Cardinals don’t shift a lot but Carpenter was shaded way over toward first, even with a double-play situation.
With two outs, Cole walks Jon Jay on a 3-2 fastball. He gets David Freese to 1-2, throws a slider, low but middle-in, and Freese lines it over the wall in left, drawing a curtain call, and then drawing complaints from angry Pirates fans on Twitter about receiving a curtain call.
Not a terrible pitch, not a great one, but Freese must have been sitting on the slider there. Of course, Freese had that monster postseason for the Cards in 2011 -- 21 RBIs in 18 games – but he’d been 2-for-23 in the playoffs going back to last year before that home run.
I said a bloop and blast, but maybe a walk and a blast. I won’t be surprised if those two runs hold up.
Third inning: Wainwright cruises through Clint Barmes, Cole and Marte, and then Marte makes a spectacular diving catch near the left-field line to rob Matt Carpenter. One thought: Hurdle has pinch hit for the weak-hitting Barmes early in games a couple times in this series. Too early in the third? You’re already behind in the game; you need offense now, not defense. Earl Weaver used to subscribe to that philosophy: Start your good defensive team and then go for offense if you need it. Using Jordy Mercer wouldn’t have been the worst idea, although I can understand not wanting to burn a position player so early in the game.
Fourth inning: Pete Kozma turns into Ozzie Smith and makes two outstanding defensive plays, a diving catch on Walker’s soft liner and then throwing out Morneau, who granted doesn’t exactly run like Usain Bolt. Not looking like the Pirates’ night.
Although ... After Matt Adams singles and Alvarez throws away Molina’s swinging bunt, Cole works out of the second-and-third jam by getting Jay to ground into a fielder’s choice where Adams was thrown out and then striking out Freese looking on 98 mph gas. (Maybe should have thrown that pitch in the second.)
Fifth inning: This game is moving along. Just over an hour. This is not American League East baseball.
The one thing that makes Wainwright’s curve so tough is that he can throw it on any count. While most still prescribe to the basic theory of getting ahead with the fastball and putting hitters away with your off-speed stuff, Wainwright will throw the curve at any time, which allows him to pitch "backwards" at times. And he throws that curve a lot -- the only pitchers who threw more curveballs this season were A.J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo. But he backs that up with great command of both his fastball and cutter, which is why he walked one batter or none in 24 of his 34 regular-season starts.
Consider this sequence to strike out Alvarez: curveball called strike, cutter for a ball, swing and miss on a curve, 94 mph four-seam fastball fouled off, curve low, swing and miss on another curve. All four of Wainwright’s strikeouts have come on the curve. He’s at 60 pitches through five and the only question may be if it’s still 2-0 in the ninth if Mike Matheny goes to Trevor Rosenthal (my prediction: no).
Sixth inning: Barmes lines a 2-2 high fastball to left for a leadoff single. Easily the worst pitch of the night for Wainwright. Garrett Jones hitting for Cole, which I think is the right call here, even with Cole at only 75 pitches. You need runs and you’re barely getting baserunners and Jones could get lucky and pop one. You have to trust a bullpen that’s been terrific all season.
Jones swings at the first pitch and flies out to center. Marte grounds into a double play. Like I said, should have let Cole hit there.
Well, Hurdle’s strategy backfires. Matt Holliday singles, Molina walks and then Justin Wilson falls behind 2-0 to Jon Jay (the 1-0 pitch a borderline strike) and Jay grounds an RBI single up the middle. I don’t want to say this game is over, but ...
Seventh inning: A breath of life for the Pirates. Morneau reaches on an infield single with two outs when Carpenter slips making the play. Byrd then hits a grounder up the middle but instead of flipping to second baseman Carpenter, Kozma lazily lobs the ball to first and Byrd beats it out.
Pretty much all the Pirates could now ask for at this point: NL home run leader Alvarez up with two runners on. You get the feeling this could be the ballgame.
Curveball and Alvarez can’t hold up.
Curveball in the dirt that Alvarez lays off.
92 mph fastball, foul tip. Freese hit the one mistake Cole made. Alvarez just missed launching this into the right-field seats.
Curve way outside. Full count. Drama.
Curveball. Routine grounder to first base ... and hits the bag! Bounces over Adams and scores Morneau. Three straight routine grounders, three infield hits, one run.
Russell Martin, having produced tough at-bats all season, grounds out to Kozma on a first-pitch cutter. Tough six-out inning for Wainwright. Really, the only hard-hit balls off him have been Alvarez’s lineout double play back in the second inning and Barmes’ liner to left.
Eighth inning: It’s 3-1, so the Pirates are at least a bloop and a blast from tying it up. Wainwright is at 88 pitches but this is a guy who led the majors in innings pitched. The Pirates have five hits, only one hit hard. Matheny did get Seth Maness warming up last inning, but I have a feeling this will be Wainwright’s game to win or lose.
The Pirates get their bloop from Jordy Mercer, bringing up Marte with one out. Lines it to Carpenter, Mercer freezes a few steps off first base, Carpenter throws to Adams ... Mercer is called out by first-base ump Paul Nauert. Bang-bang. Let's go to the booth! Oh, wait ...
Initial replays make it appear Mercer was safe. After the commercial break, a frame-by-frame look makes it appear he was out. Either way, Mercer cannot get caught off base there. The split-second hesitation cost him. Second baserunning error of the game for the Pirates.
Then: Game over. Adams annihilates a Mark Melancon pitch for a two-run shot to right. Adams, playing for the injured Allen Craig, a kid from Slippery Rock, Pa., who grew up rooting for the Pirates, just crushed the little bit of hope remaining for Pirates fans.
Ninth inning: The TV broadcast flashes to Pirates fans watching the game on a big screen in Pittsburgh. Makes me a bit sad, but it was a great season, Pittsburgh. You'll be back.
Wainwright finishes it off, striking out Alvarez, a dominant 107-pitch effort. Not a bad trade years ago for St. Louis: The Braves traded away the local kid from Georgia for one year of J.D. Drew. Wainwright was a 22-year-old minor leaguer then who had recorded a 3.37 ERA in Double-A. Now he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who can carry his team all the way, riding that big, beautiful curveball of his that dances in the night.