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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Cards-Bucs set has the trappings of a classic

Cards-Bucs set has the trappings of a classic

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Cards-Bucs set has the trappings of a classic

MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

PITTSBURGH -- What we have here is a meeting between the established postseason residents and the new kids on the playoff block.

On Thursday in Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates will begin a best-of-five National League Division Series, airing at 5 p.m. ET on TBS.

Before anybody installs the Redbirds as prohibitive favorites, it ought to be noted that they were 9-10 against the Pirates this season.

In terms of postseason experience in the current century, however, there is no comparison. The Bucs are making their first postseason appearance in 21 years. They started this appearance impressively enough with a 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Wild Card Game.

NLDS
The Cardinals have won two World Series in the last seven seasons, and, of course, lead the NL with 11 Series championships. They are not the Yankees, but over time they have been the best the Senior Circuit has to offer at this line of work. The Pirates have won five World Series championships, which is not a track record that can be dismissed, but they haven't been fitted for rings since 1979.

The Cards are in the postseason for the third straight October. They won the World Series in 2011, and they advanced to within one victory of the Fall Classic in 2012. Their credentials are in order.

Both of these clubs have good enough pitching to make a run all the way through the 2013 postseason. The Bucs have the third best team ERA in baseball; the Cardinals rank fifth. These teams are strong where postseason teams must be.

The Cards lead the NL in runs scored. The Pirates are eighth in that category, scoring a slightly fewer than four runs per game. That's a pedestrian sort of offense, but it hardly disqualifies the Bucs from postseason success. It just underscores how good their pitching has been.

The Pirates made a big impression against the Reds, beating them three straight at the end of the season in Cincinnati to earn the right to host the NL Wild Card Game, then knocking them out of the playoffs. The Reds have qualified for the postseason three times in the past four seasons. They are not pushovers.

"They've got a lot going for them," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the Pirates. "Their pitching, it was a huge addition that hurt us a lot in Marlon Byrd -- that was a late-season acquisition -- I think he got four or five RBIs the other day, hit one out today, enough to get them on the board, give them the momentum and get the fans in it.

"When they scored first, then the place erupted. And Russell Martin, he hit two home runs. He did the same thing in our park, hit the ball out of the ballpark. If you make mistakes on these guys right now, they're not missing the mistakes."

The late-season additions of Byrd and Justin Morneau have added quality to the middle of the Pirates' lineup, even though Morneau has not been as productive as either he or the Bucs would have hoped. This was a very good team for most of the season. It is better than that now.

The Cardinals have a couple of built-in advantages for the NLDS. One, by virtue of winning the NL Central, is home-field advantage. And by virtue of having the best record in the league, the Redbirds would hold the home-field advantage if they advance to the NL Championship Series.

And the Cards have their ace, Adam Wainwright pitching in Game 1 on Thursday on regular rest. The Pirates will be going with perhaps the nominal ace of their rotation, A.J. Burnett, in the opener.

But by performance, the real Pittsburgh ace is lefty Francisco Liriano. He had to be used in the NL Wild Card Game. Liriano was terrific, producing exactly the kind of performance the Bucs required. But if the NLDS goes to five games, the Cardinals could go back to Wainwright. That could be a telling edge.

And as well as the Pirates have been playing, the Cards are also on a role. They won 17 of their last 22 games, including each of their last six.

These clubs may be meeting for the 20th time in 2013 on Thursday, but this still looks like a compelling postseason matchup. Two teams with strong pitching, both playing very well at exactly the right time; this is precisely what a classic postseason series requires.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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