We are so close.
After, what, five... six months of this bleak, baseball-less existence we call "the offseason", we are now only one day away from its glorious return. It feels good. It feels right.
But before Matt Carpenter takes a first pitch strike from Francisco Liriano tomorrow, let's recap what has happened so far...
October 7, 2015
The Pittsburgh Pirates took on the Chicago Cubs in the National League Wild Card play-in game at PNC Park. It marked the third straight year the Pirates took part in the do-or-die elimination game (due to coming in second in the division to the first place Cardinals each year), winning in 2013 and losing in 2014. The crowd was electric and the 98-win Pirates were eager to get into another full postseason series.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, Jake Arrieta pitched up to his Cy Young billing, allowing no runs on only five hits and eleven strikeouts in a complete game effort. Gerrit Cole was less sharp, allowing his first multi-homer game of the season. The Pirates season ended in Pittsburgh in a 4-0 loss to the Cubs.
October 14, 2015
Injuries to key players such as Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina pushed the Cardinals depth to its limits in a 2015 campaign that somehow ultimately led to 100 wins and a third consecutive division crown. The Cardinals faced the third-place, 97-win Cubs, who had advanced over the Pirates in the Wild Card play-in game in the Division Series. After winning game one of the series, the Cardinals went on to lose the next three, dropping game four 8 runs to 6. The improbable season had come to a bitter end.
December 15, 2015
Jason Heyward sat a table draped in a cheap white cloth, cameras flashing throughout the modest room. The quiet hum of curious reporters buzzed around him. Finally, his uniform was presented to him, a blue pinstriped smock bearing his name and number, 22. The jersey was ill-fitting over his soft-gray suit jacket and tie, but that thought brought little comfort to the Cardinals, who had made the twenty-six year old right fielder their key offseason target after trading Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for him (and reliever Jordan Walden) nearly a year earlier.
The Cardinals would stay quiet for the rest of the offseason, the team on occasion rumored to be courting the occasional outfielder or two, but never further involved than that, choosing to put its faith in the younger options (Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Stephen Piscotty) already at its disposal.
December 26, 2015
After losing out at the last minute on David Price, the Cardinals were still on the lookout for a rotation upgrade. This upgrade would come in the form of Mike Leake, a tall, wiry man with blue eyes and dimples. Leake will help fill the void left by veteran John Lackey (who also went north to the rival Cubs), and provide much needed innings after Lance Lynn went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. A flashy move this was not, but a necessary one. Very "Cardinals" indeed.
March 11, 2016
The Pirates somehow managed to have a quieter offseason than even the barely-audible whisper of the Cardinals. The most expensive signing of the year was the $8 million, two year deal given to first baseman John Jaso. Perhaps the most interesting acquisition of the winter occurred in the spring, when the Pirates signed St. Louis native and local hero David Freese. Freese found himself the odd man out in Golden Age of Third Basemen, forcing him to spend most of the offseason without a job, working out with former teammates Holliday and Carpenter. The Pirates finally signed the World Series MVP to fill in at third base, allowing Josh Harrison to slide over to second base while Jung Ho Kang recovers from the leg injury he suffered in a collision at second base (at the hands, or rather feet, of the dastardly Cubs, no less).
April 3, 2016
Dating back to 2013 Francisco Liriano has been an obstructive force against the Cardinals, using a vicious slider to neutralize the Cardinals corps of lefties. The first one he stands to face will most certainly be the Cardinals lead off man extraordinaire, Matt Carpenter. In 2015, Carpenter chose to change his tactics to a more power-friendly approach, and that he did, belting 28 homers en route to amassing 5.2 fWAR, making him arguably the Cardinals best player. As the spark plug of the offense, it is seemingly "as Matt Carpenter goes, the Cardinals go". With that in mind, Liriano will surely attempt to avoid giving Carpenter much to hit, while Carpenter will try to be patient and lay off the slider, merely observing it as a good scientist does, until the right moment.
Opposing Liriano will be Cardinal Ace Adam Wainwright. Much as been made about Waino's age slowing him down, especially in light of the season-ending Achilles' injury he suffered last April. Though the injury kept Waino off the field, it also kept innings off his arm, meaning he should be fresh and ready to go for his fourth consecutive Opening Day start. He will need to be sharp to navigate through a Pirates lineup that, while outside of Andrew McCutchen provides no true superstar in the technical sense of the word, is strong. In 2015 the Pirates were the best hitting team in the National League Central according to wRC+, where the team, at 99 wRC+, ranked ahead of the Cardinals (96) and Cubs (96).
These two teams have been built very similarly, through drafting and development, where strength comes from the team's high floor rather than relying on a high ceiling. The lineups lack a truly threatening hitter, but are balanced throughout, giving a pitcher few easy outs. The Pirates and Cardinals are set to face each other nineteen times this season, both with the division crown in their sights. If these series are anything close to the intensity of those from 2015, we are in store for some exciting games indeed.
Obligatory and Shameless Kolten Wong Walk-Off Highlight
|Sunday, April 3||12:05pm CST||Adam Wainwright||vs||Francisco Liriano|
|Tuesday, April 5||6:05pm CST||Michael Wacha||vs.||Jon Niese|
|Wednesday, April 6||6:05pm CST||Mike Leake||vs.||Juan Nicasio|
Do not forget to check out the Pirates SB Nation site, Bucs Dugout, for all things Pirates!