ST. LOUIS -- It took until the final Friday of the regular season, but the Cardinals were able to hold off the Pirates for the National League Central title behind a strong September finish.
Now, if they want to advance deep into October, they'll have to stave off a feisty Pirates team once more.
The Pirates are headed to St. Louis on the heels of eliminating the Reds in Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game. They now meet the Cards in a best-of-five NL Division Series that begins Thursday at Busch Stadium at 4 p.m. CT on TBS. If the season series -- one that the Pirates narrowly won, 10-9 -- is any indication of what is ahead, this series is poised to be tight.
"Obviously, we've played those guys a bunch," Matt Carpenter said. "That can have its advantages and disadvantages. We know exactly what we're going to get from these guys. We've faced their pitching and they've faced our pitching. Really, it's about who comes out, makes those adjustments and is ready to go. There's not really a whole lot of unknown. I think it's fitting that we're going to match up with one of those guys when we've been so close with them all season for the pennant race."
From June 21 through the end of September, the Cardinals and Pirates alone jockeyed for the top spot in the division. Pittsburgh may have had the slight edge in matchup wins, but it was St. Louis which narrowly outscored its division rivals, 87-85.
The Cards went 3-7 at PNC Park -- the venue of Games 3 and 4 -- but held their own against the Bucs at home, winning six of nine. That included an authoritative three-game sweep in early September to take control of the division lead.
And yet ...
"You throw all the stats out when you come into these games," manager Mike Matheny said. "You just go out and compete. You can't carry any of your successes or failures out there with you. You just go out and play the game and hopefully everybody is ready to go."
"Usually who wins is the team that executes better," Matt Holliday added. "When you're familiar with pitchers, at least you're a little more comfortable facing guys you're used to facing."
Despite all the familiarity, it's worth noting that the Cardinals never did match up against Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole, who will likely pitch one of the first two games in St. Louis. The Cards have struggled all season against unfamiliar pitchers, and Cole is coming off a sensational September. He posted a 1.69 ERA in five starts, all of which the Bucs won.
Working in the Cardinals' favor, though, is that they'll face lefty Francisco Liriano just once, since the Pirates needed him to pitch on Tuesday against the Reds. St. Louis labored against left-handers in 2013, and no one gave the team more fits than Liriano, who went 3-0 and allowed just two earned runs in 24 innings against the Cards.
These are two teams that have combined to win 16 World Series, yet will be meeting each other in the postseason for the first time. Consider it a continuation of a fascinating series slate between a pair of clubs that have battling for division supremacy from season's start.
"We know each other," Carlos Beltran said. "We played so many games this year. Right now we're not thinking about who we're going to face. We're thinking about ourselves as a team and what we need to do to win ballgames. That is really what is important for us right now."
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.