Pirates break tradition by playing; Cardinals stick to it by winning
ST. LOUIS — If Tuesday night was a raucous party, with Pittsburgh hosting Cincinnati in the Pirates’ first playoff game in 21 years, the St. Louis Cardinals countered Thursday with stately tradition. Clydesdales clip-clopped around the warning track before the game, and Busch Stadium was awash in its familiar sea of red.
The Cardinals then flexed their muscle on the field, battering the Pirates, 9-1, to take the first game of their best-of-five National League division series.
St. Louis, making its 10th appearance in the playoffs in the last 14 seasons, knocked out 10 hits and scored an NLDS-record seven third-inning runs.
The Cardinals were led by two postseason veterans, a commodity in short supply in the Pittsburgh dugout, with Carlos Beltran hitting a three-run homer to open the scoring and a nearly unhittable Adam Wainwright pitching seven innings of one-run ball.
The underdog Pirates had captured the imagination of baseball fans across the country by ending their long playoff drought and reaching the division series with a 6-2 win over the Reds on Tuesday night. But in Game 1 here they committed three errors, mustered only four hits and generally looked more like the bumbling Pittsburgh teams of the last two decades than the squad that won 94 games during the regular season.
A nightmarish third inning doomed the Pirates’ chances Thursday. A.J. Burnett, the Pirates’ starter, walked Wainwright to start the inning, and Matt Carpenter followed with a single. That brought up Beltran, who entered the game with a 1.250 on-base plus slugging in the playoffs, the best mark in baseball history. He turned on a 2-1 fastball and blasted it into the second deck in right field.
After Matt Holliday doubled to right-center, Burnett completed his self-destruction. He hit Matt Adams and walked Yadier Molina and Jon Jay to force in a run before allowing a two-run single to David Freese. On the play, an errant throw from right fielder Marlon Byrd allowed Jay to score as well, and Burnett was done for the game.
Two weeks ago, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle mapped out his starting rotation to ensure that Burnett would start Game 1 of the division series. On a team on which only six players have postseason experience, Burnett had two World Series rings and seven playoff starts, although his postseason earned run average was more than 5.00.
“That’s how important it was to us,” Hurdle said. “We planned it out a while ago.”
But Burnett did not make it out of the third inning, allowing six hits, four walks and seven earned runs in his worst playoff outing since Game 5 of the 2009 World Series, when he played for the New York Yankees.
Wainwright pitched like a cool veteran. His devastating curveball — the same pitch that froze Beltran, then a Met, to end Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series — left Pirates hitters either flailing or buckling. Wainwright did not allow a base runner until the fourth inning and struck out nine, his only blemish being a solo home run by Pedro Alvarez. Wainwright improved his postseason record to 3-0.
The Cardinals and the Pirates, NL Central Division rivals, had never met in the playoffs but were evenly matched during the regular season. The Pirates won 10 of their 19 meetings but lost six of nine at Busch Stadium. What appeared to separate the teams most was recent history. While the Pirates are strangers to meaningful autumn games, the Cardinals have won 11 World Series — including the 2006 and 2011 titles — and make regular appearances on the biggest stage.
“We don’t shy away from the topic of how much experience our team has,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “When you look in that room and you look at the rings that these guys have won, there is a lot of value to what they’ve learned through the years.”
Hurdle had talked at length about the legacy of winning and the atmosphere his team would find in St. Louis.
“Just the fan base, the Busch family, the players that have come before,” Hurdle said. “When Jack Buck’s following your team around. When Whitey Herzog still comes around, you know? It drips with tradition, with respect, with integrity, with professionalism.”
Those qualities were on display again Thursday, in all facets of the game. Freese made a diving catch in the third inning to rob Clint Barmes of an extra-base hit. Later in the game, Cardinals reliever Carlos Martinez made a terrific play by throwing out Russell Martin on a roller up the third-base line.
A Barmes throwing error helped the Cardinals score their eighth run, and the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen overran a ground ball in center field that led to St. Louis’s ninth run.
Before the game, Matheny was asked about the magical ride the Pirates seemed to be on. “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them,” he said.
After a Game 1 blowout, the Pirates will have plenty to think about themselves.
Copyright The New York Times News Service.
PHOTO: St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran watches his three-run home run in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 1 of the NL division series, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in St. Louis. The Cardinals won 9-1. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)