Different stakes for Pirates, Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- The schedule says it's Game 5 of the National League Division Series. But that doesn't begin to describe what is about to unfold in Busch Stadium on an epic Wednesday evening.

These are the nights when all the storylines collide, when reputations are carved, when seasons are defined, when careers are changed.

And, lest we forget, it will also be a night when two of the most engaged fan bases in baseball will freeze their regularly scheduled lives, stop breathing for the next three hours and pray that this won't be the end.

On one side of the field, you'll have the National League's reigning powerhouse, the St. Louis Cardinals, ready to point one of the best pitchers alive, Adam Wainwright, toward a pitching mound he has come to know, to love, to own.

On the other side of the field, you'll have America's underdogs, the Pittsburgh Pirates, still chasing the dream, attempting their latest rewrite of franchise history by betting on a 23-year-old rocketballer, Gerrit Cole, making just the 21st big league start of his career.

Someone will win and move on. Someone will lose and stare into the emptiness of a long winter. This is the magic of a game like this. And everyone knows the stakes.

"The game is going to be out there for somebody to win it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said on Tuesday. "You've got to make plays. You've got to execute pitches. You've got to have quality at-bats. And every once in a while, something completely apart from that could happen. You don't know whether it [might] be a rundown. That's what makes it so exciting, I believe."

But the other thing that makes this so exciting, so mesmerizing, is that these two teams arrive on this stage after traveling down such different paths, even though they've shared the same baseball field 23 times already this year.

The Cardinals have been here, done this so many times over the last few years, they are practically the kings of the elimination game. This will be their ninth "sudden-death game" in just the last three postseasons -- and the ninth time in that span that they've shown up for work knowing that a bad night would send them off to their favorite putting greens and hunting ranges.

Do we even have to remind you how most of those other nights have gone?

Not only have the Cardinals won seven of those previous eight survival games, but four of them -- Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS in Philadelphia, Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas, Game 5 of last year's pulsating NLDS in Washington -- would have to rank way, way, wayyy up there on anyone's list of the most unforgettable postseason games of the 21st Century.

Classics. Every one of them. And now here this team is again, ready for one more.

The Pirates, on the other hand, couldn't possibly have journeyed to this destination via a more different path. Could they?

Before this month, they hadn't played a postseason game in Jurickson Profar's lifetime. If you don't count that wild-card game last week, they still haven't won a postseason series in Russell Martin's lifetime.

So ask yourself this: Are the stakes in this game for the Pirates higher or lower? In so many ways, they're the team with nothing to lose. On the other hand, they've come so far, done so much to light up the lives of an entire city, they're not ready to see this magic carpet ride crash back down to earth.

"It's such a big difference from when I first got traded here," said injured pitcher Jeff Karstens, who's the answer to the trivia question "which current Pirate has been with this team the longest (since 2008)?"

"Back then, you'd walk out to the bullpen and there were bags over people's heads. And at first I was like, 'What's this? This isn't baseball.'"

But now, five years later, he finds this same team playing in front of one record crowd after another, in a town that has fallen in love again with baseball -- and with its baseball team. So it's a painful thought for all of them to imagine that, if they lose this game, there would suddenly be no more games left to play.

Lose and they'll still be folk heroes. But if they win  -- and then keep on winning -- they'll be legends.

Elsa/Getty Images

Rookie Gerrit Cole held the Cardinals to one run on two hits over six innings in the Pirates' 7-1 victory in NLDS Game 2.

"This," said Andrew McCutchen, "is what you dream about."

Think, then, how incredible it is that the pitcher Clint Hurdle has entrusted to pitch the franchise's biggest game in two decades is a guy who was in a playpen the last time the Pirates played in a postseason series that went the distance (back in 1992). But Hurdle has made it clear that choosing Cole had nothing to do with age or experience.

"The young man that's going to take the mound for us tomorrow, Gerrit Cole, has done nothing but get better throughout the season," Hurdle said Tuesday. "He's been as good as anybody we've been able to run out there the last six weeks."

Please recognize the inner strength it took for the manager to make this choice. The easy option would have been to say, "It's A.J. Burnett's turn to pitch. He's our ace. We're going to do what we've done all year." We've heard those lines dozens of times, from dozens of managers, in dozens of Octobers.

But we didn't hear it from this manager. Instead, he applied the only logic that should ever matter this time of year. "We have one game to win," he said. "As I've done, and I've challenged the guys to do, we need to do the best we can to win that next game."

So the Pirates' fate will be in the hands of a guy with the talent to do big, big things in his career.

Cole has already been the top draft pick in the sport (in 2011). He has already shown he isn't intimidated by the ballpark, the lineup he'll face or the electricity of October, by dialing up six overpowering innings (two hits, one run, five whiffs, one walk) against the Cardinals in Game 2 of this series, reaching 100 miles per hour four times in his final inning on the mound.

He has been the Pirates' best pitcher over the last month (5-0, 1.66 ERA in his last six starts). He has won his last five starts following a Pirates' loss. He is the only Pirates pitcher who has won a game in Busch Stadium since Aug. 14. (They were outscored 41-16 in the five games he didn't pitch.)

So this is his time. This is his moment. This is his chance to do something no one in Pittsburgh will ever forget.

"This is what you prepare for all year," Cole said Tuesday. "This is why you work out in the offseason, for moments like this, to be mentally and physically ready to go. Yeah, it's extremely exciting. And I can't wait."

Elsa/Getty Images

Adam Wainwright dominated the Pirates in NLDS Game 1, a 9-1 Cardinals rout.

But neither, you understand, can the man he'll be pitching against.

"All throughout my whole life, I've wanted to be in the pressure moments," said Wainwright on Tuesday -- and he knows those moments don't get more pressurized than in games like this.

Once upon a time, in another life, back in his emergency-closer incarnation in 2006, Wainwright was the guy who threw the final pitch, got the final out, of both a World Series and Game 7 of an intense National League Championship Series. But he has never done what he has the opportunity to do Wednesday night.

He has never started and won a sudden-death game like this one.

Oh, he did start a game like this, as recently as last October in Washington. He just didn't win, or pitch well, or live up to his own expectations in that Game 5 -- because, as we know now, he wasn't physically capable of doing that in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.

The fact that his team stomped back and pulled out a miraculous win from the early six-run hole he dug them that night helped ease his pain and his guilt. But he will be a different guy, a different pitcher this time, he promised Tuesday.

"This year, I have all the confidence in the world in my stuff," he said. "I will be prepared. I will be confident going into the game. It's just a completely different situation."

Two years ago, when all he could do while rehabbing from his surgery was watch and wave his pom-poms, it was his close friend, Chris Carpenter, who set the bar for Game 5/Game 7 greatness that Wainwright now aspires to reach.

"Internally," he said, of the road that led him to this special start, "that's what drove me, is to get to that 'Carp' type level."

So this is his chance. This is his game. This is the night when he can reenact the Chris Carpenter story, right there on the mound at Busch Stadium. And that will be very much in Adam Wainwright's mind.

If he wins, if he dominates, if he leaves his mark on the most important game he has ever started, he earns a place in the Carpenter/Gibson/Dean page of Cardinals' folklore. But the Pirates will have something to say about that, too, because let us never forget that there will be two teams reaching for a place in the storybooks on this night.

So settle in for a memorable evening -- as two tough, talented baseball teams empty their tanks for the right to keep playing, and keep dreaming. Yeah, it's "just" Game 5 of a tremendous National League Division Series. But in truth, you know, and we know, and they know, it's much, much more.

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