ST. LOUIS — It began with the starting pitching finding its rhythm, as Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright will say baseball often does, and then the bats joined in like a relentless bass line. Defense played in harmony, and toward the end the relievers located theirs.
Through September, the Cardinals pieced their game back together, tuning each part and playing toward 97 wins and a division title. After clattering at times through the summer, as the Cardinals neared they playoffs they were closer to the team they knew they could be.
Come October, they reached crescendo.
The Pirates got an earful.
With Wainwright conducting, the Cardinals unleashed a 9-1 victory Thursday at Busch Stadium against Pittsburgh, seizing Game 1 of the National League division series. Flexing their might, the seasoned Cardinals scored seven runs off Pirates starter A.J. Burnett before he could get an out in the third inning, and then followed Wainwright and Carlos Beltran to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Beltran hit his 15th career postseason homer, tying Babe Ruth. The Pirates, in a playoff series for the first time in two decades, committed three errors, all three of which led directly to Cardinals runs.
“Things are clicking at the right time,” Wainwright said. “It doesn’t get much better. We played pretty flawlessly. This whole season, 162 games worth, is building toward these moments right here. We wanted to set the tone. But we’re not going to sit on that win.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny insisted that little was different before the start of the series, which continues today with Game 2 at Busch. The clubhouse throbbed “with the same terrible music” and the “same guys running around” doing all the same things they do. But a few players said what awaited them outside the clubhouse added voltage to the day. Wainwright, who allowed one run in seven innings, couldn’t miss the tailgaters already at the ballpark before he was Tuesday. David Freese, who had the two RBIs that knocked Burnett from the game, described the noise from the 45,693 fans cascading into the dugout. Matheny has stressed often this season that if the goal is to win that day’s game, then every game has the same importance.
There is no need “to really feel like they’ve got to kick it up another level,” he said.
They just did.
Wainwright retired the first nine batters he faced. The ace did not allow a hit until two outs into the fourth inning when the Cardinals already had a 7-0 lead. Wainwright claimed his third postseason win, and for the fourth time in his five postseason starts he allowed no more than one run. Wainwright established his curve early and six of his nine strikeouts came on the curve. The Pitch f/x system that clocks velocity and break on every pitch at every ballpark had Wainwright’s third pitch to Pirates MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen in the first inning at 97 mph. Talk about a tone-setter.
“He’s our ace. That’s what he does,” said shortstop Daniel Descalso. “He’s meant to be out there on the mound in big spots.”
His opposition faded fast. Burnett, the Pirates’ Game 1 starter because ace Francisco Liriano won the wild-card game Tuesday, had a battered history at Busch. As recently as May 2012, the righty had allowed 12 runs in a single 2 2/3-inning appearance against the Cardinals. Including Thursday’s game, Burnett has allowed 47 baserunners and 31 earned runs in 18 innings at Busch over his past five starts. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said they knew the numbers but “if you only believe what you see, you’re reporting the weather.” Burnett groped for his curveball through the first couple of innings, getting an escape-hatch double play to avoid damage in the second inning. The third was unkind.
Cardinals players described how with Burnett they had to “hunt heater,” especially with shadows crisscrossing the infield. The Cardinals have also made a habit this season of mulching starters in their second time through the lineup. The Cardinals were about average, batting .246, in their first look at a starting pitcher. In their second look, that average shot to .301, the best in baseball. Their slugging percentage went from .369 to .447, the best in the NL.
“I just think we do a real good job of making adjustments,” leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said. “You’ve heard the old saying: ‘A good hitter will make an adjustment that day. A great hitter will make an adjustment that at-bat. The elite hitters will make the next pitch.’ And we’ve got some really good hitters on this team and they make adjustments. If you give them a chance to face a guy a couple of times, he’s got it tough.”
Already in control on the mound, Wainwright triggered the offense with a leadoff walk in the third. Carpenter followed with a single. Beltran turned on a 2-1 pitch from Burnett and landed it in the second deck of the right-field stands.
The estimated 443 feet is the third-longest by a lefthanded hitter at Busch III.
“I thought it was out of the ballpark,” Carpenter said.
Matt Holliday followed with a double. Burnett hit a batter, walked two more. An error happened. And by the time the inning ended the Cardinals had set an NLDS record with seven runs in a single inning. Freese poked a single down the first-place line to score two, and when the ball was misplayed, a third run scored to bounce Burnett from the game.
“Our offense, seemingly, once we get something going, it’s very hard to stop us,” Wainwright said. “We score a lot in bunches. So when we get one of those innings going, nobody wants to make the first out.”
The Cardinals later added two runs, each scoring on a Pirates error.
Pittsburgh had the better defense this season by many measures, but it was the Cardinals’ gloves that defused rallies. Freese snared a line drive with a dive to the third-base line. In the eighth, rookie Carlos Martinez aided his perfect postseason debut by scrambling to field a ball at the third-base line and fire, falling backward, to first base. First baseman Matt Adams had such a nimble game, Freese said his nickname should change from “Big City” to “Big Kitty.”
The Cardinals’ opening statement featured hits from the first seven spots in the order and six innings in which their pitcher retired the Pirates in order. Carpenter described how the Cardinals know first hand how momentum works in October, and how a wild-card team like Pittsburgh can roll if it gets a whiff of momentum. The Cardinals did in 2011, and came one win shy of the World Series in 2012.
The best way to mute the opponent is to bring the noise.
“I think you have to elevate,” Freese said. “I think we understand what is on the other side of the field — a very determined, confident Pirates team. It’s two heavyweights going at it. Pittsburgh — they’re not scared. … You don’t have to be the best team getting into the postseason. Being hot is a good thing. That’s why you want to keep this going.”