Three keys for Cardinals in NL Division Series

Three keys for Cardinals in NL Division Series

Three keys for Cardinals in NL Division Series

ST. LOUIS -- A year after earning their spot in the National League's final four by defeating the Braves in the inaugural NL Wild Card Game, the Cardinals watched Tuesday night as the Pirates survived that one-and-done format to earn an extended October stay.

The Bucs are now en route to St. Louis, where they'll meet the Cards in a best-of-five NL Division Series beginning Thursday at 4 p.m. CT on TBS. This will be a matchup all about familiarity, as these two teams met 19 times during the regular season, including 14 times in the Cardinals' final 60 games.

While the Pirates are celebrating their first postseason berth in 21 years, the Cardinals are seeking their ninth trip to the NL Championship Series in that same span. Here are three keys for the Cards as they prepare to try and stop a pesky Pirates team:

Blend the bullpen

Manager Mike Matheny employed a formulaic approach with the back end of his bullpen last postseason. This year, he enters October with no defined closer. Edward Mujica, who saved 37 games this year, faltered so badly in September that the Cardinals handed Trevor Rosenthal all of the save situations in the season's final week. The rookie Rosenthal hasn't been tapped with a title, but it does appear that the ninth-inning duties will continue to be his.

NLDS

In shifting Rosenthal to the ninth, the Cardinals have an eighth-inning hole to fill. Matheny seems ready to put that in the hands of two other rookies, lefty Kevin Siegrist and right-hander Carlos Martinez. Rookie Seth Maness has spent much of the year pitching the seventh, and another rookie, Sam Freeman, could be in the bullpen mix, depending upon how the Cards construct their bullpen.

Of these rookies, only Rosenthal has any previous postseason experience. None of them truly has defined roles. Randy Choate and John Axford bring some experience, but the Cardinals are going to have to rely on their young power arms to close games. How these pitchers handle the growing stage and evolving roles will determine how aggressive Matheny can be in pulling his starters.

Neutralize PNC Park

PNC Park was not at all kind to the Cardinals during the regular season. And as anyone who watched Tuesday's Wild Card Game could attest to, the hostility has been kicked up a notch upon the calendar turning. That's after the Pirates went 50-31 at home during the regular season. Technically, the Redbirds don't have to win a game at PNC Park to advance to the NLCS. With home-field advantage, the Cardinals get as many as three games in St. Louis. However, this would be the time for the Cards to figure out how to squeeze out a win while playing on the banks of the Allegheny River.

The Cardinals went 3-7 and did not win any of the three series at PNC Park this season. They were outhomered, 7-0, there. The Cards' woes at that ballpark were no more exposed than during a key series there in late July. The Pirates extended the Cardinals' season-worst losing streak to seven games by taking the first four games of a five-game series. It was the low point of St. Louis' season and a period during which the Cards watched the Bucs temporarily move into the top spot in the NL Central.

Set the tone

The Pirates will arrive in St. Louis having won four straight games and six of their last seven. The Cardinals carry in a six-game winning streak. Both teams are on a roll, and in a best-of-five series, securing Game 1 is especially important. Though the Bucs have had a magical season, the Cards carry the experience card and would be wise to flex that right away.

They have thrived at Busch Stadium, winning a stadium-record 54 games there this season. That includes 23 wins in their final 29 home games. Among those were five victories in six games over Pittsburgh.

While the Pirates won't be able to send their best pitcher (Francisco Liriano ) back to the mound until Game 3, the Cardinals have a rested Adam Wainwright going on Thursday. There is no one the Cards would rather have leading an otherwise young rotation. Wainwright finished with an NL-high 19 wins and has a 3.00 ERA in three season starts against the Bucs. He can position St. Louis well in the short series and zap some of Pittsburgh's magic with a shutdown start.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.