The Road to the World Series made a few familiar turns in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series between the Cardinals and Pirates, the only playoff game on Wednesday night.
The combination of a raucous Busch Stadium crowd bathed in red, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright on the mound and the momentum from Michael Wacha's sterling Game 4 near-no-hitter proved to be too much for even a game Pittsburgh club to handle, and the Bucs' dream season of rebirth finally came to an end in a 6-1 loss.
The big hits came from the 2011 postseason hero, Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who belted a two-run home run in the second inning off Pittsburgh's impressive rookie starter, Gerrit Cole, and another two-run homer by Matt Adams in the eighth.
Wainwright had it under control the whole time, finished with a complete-game victory and now St. Louis has a date with the Dodgers for a best-of-seven set that will decide the NL pennant, beginning on Friday on TBS.
"I've got to put it right up there with the most fun and one of the greatest moments of my career so far, no doubt," Wainwright said. "Just incredibly blessed to be here today, to be able to start that game in the first place, but to pitch a game like that was one of the highlights of my baseball life, no doubt."
Now the Pirates head back home for the winter but not with a bit of shame. They had a spectacular season -- the first winning year and postseason appearance for the franchise since 1992. Their growing fan base noticed and rode it out with them all the way, even until Wednesday's bitter end.
The 2013 pennant drive, the NL Wild Card Game and the NLDS battle by the Pirates was a gutty, inspired run from a talented team that reignited a city's passion for baseball. It also was a learning experience for a young club that should keep improving.
That's what manager Clint Hurdle was focusing on in the clubhouse after Game 5.
"We were able to take a huge step forward this year in restoring the pride and the passion of the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization and rebonding our city with a ball team," Hurdle said. "It was evident during the Wild Card Game and through the playoffs of the hunger and the passion that our fans have for their local team.
"So as I shared with the men in the locker room, their futures, individually and collectively, are in good hands. All they've got to do is look at the end of their arms, because that's where their hands are. They've worked their backsides off this year, and I'm proud of each and every one of them."
In the shadow of the Gateway Arch, the Cardinals are gearing up once again for a shot at the World Series, and they'll have home-field advantage against the Dodgers, who are well-rested after beating the Braves in four games in the other NL Division Series.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said his club will be ready.
"We'll be looking forward to that Dodgers series," Matheny said. "I know they've got a strong club, too. Everybody we're going to see, anybody you see from here on out this time of year, they're going to be very well-rounded, and they've got the pitching and obviously an explosive offense. It's going to be a tough assignment for us, but we'll start preparing for that tomorrow."
The Road to the World Series will finally exit the Division Series round after Thursday's much-anticipated Game 5 between the Tigers and A's in Oakland on TBS at 8 p.m. ET.
With the NL Championship Series set with the Dodgers and Cardinals and the Red Sox waiting at Fenway Park to meet the winner of this game, all eyes will be affixed on the O.co Coliseum diamond as Detroit's Justin Verlander takes the ball against A's rookie Sonny Gray in a rematch of their unforgettable Saturday night Game 2, in which Gray matched Verlander pitch for pitch through shutout inning after shutout inning and the A's won, 1-0, on a Stephen Vogt single in the bottom of the ninth inning.
On Thursday, Game 5 won't just be a rematch of that game. It'll be a rematch of Game 5 of the American League Division Series between these two clubs last year, when Verlander threw a shutout to punch his team's ticket to the ALCS.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland is happy to have the services of Verlander after using his other ace, Max Scherzer, in relief in the must-win Game 4 on Tuesday.
"We feel comfortable anytime Justin Verlander goes out there," Leyland said.
A's shortstop Jed Lowrie, who heated up in Game 4 with a pair of hits, including a home run, said the key to attacking Verlander might be to just trust the lineup and not try to do too much.
"That's the easiest way to get to a guy like Verlander -- give yourself as many opportunities to score as possible," Lowrie said. "Get guys on base and get him to throw those stress innings and pitches where he's not able to cruise through innings."
Easier said than done, especially after the A's quiet efforts the last two times they had to face Verlander, but the Tigers have a tough assignment against Gray, too. That's why Oakland manager Bob Melvin decided to start the rookie, who doesn't even have a full season in the Major Leagues under his belt, in Game 5 instead of veteran Bartolo Colon.
"He's a bit of a bulldog," Melvin said of Gray. "He's scared of nothing. Right away, [he] established what he wanted to do in that game. He's pitched in some big games, and when you talk about experience in these type of games, he really does have this type of experience pitching just five days ago.
"So not too long ago, he pitched in this same venue against the same team with the same type of crowd we're expecting, and he looked pretty comfortable with it."
Gray impressed the opposition while doing it, striking out nine in eight scoreless innings and looking a lot older than his 23 years and 12 regular-season big league appearances.
"I'm not really sure we liked what we saw," Leyland said of Gray. "It was pretty good. But at least we have seen him now. It does make some difference. With the stuff he was featuring, it certainly does not mean we're going to be in a comfort zone, but it makes you a little more comfortable, now that you know the action on the ball, the great breaking ball that he has.
"This kid is a great looking young pitcher, so it will be better for us than it was the other night, hopefully."
The A's will head to the plate with the same thoughts about facing Verlander, hoping they can finally break through.
"You go back and try to figure out what you did wrong or how he pitched you," Melvin said. "We do have some experience with him, and we feel like we have a better chance to turn the tide. It's tough to go out there each, and every time and consistently beat a team in the past, and he has with us. So you have to give him credit. He's one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, and he's a big-game postseason pitcher.
"We've run into him for whatever reason at the wrong time too many times, but we have to feel confident we're going to do well against him and be successful."
Thursday's AL Division Series game
Tigers (Verlander) at A's (Gray), 8 p.m. ET (TBS) Preview >
2013 MLB POSTSEASON MATCHUPS
Division Series: Red Sox beat Rays, 3-1 | Tigers at A's
Championship Series: Tigers/A's at Red Sox
Division Series: Cardinals beat Pirates, 3-2 | Dodgers beat Braves, 3-1
Championship Series: Dodgers at Cardinals
2013 postseason schedule
NL Division Series
Game 1: Cardinals 9, Pirates 1
Game 2: Pirates 7, Cardinals 1
Game 3: Pirates 5, Cardinals 3
Game 4: Cardinals 2, Pirates 1
Game 5: Cardinals 6, Pirates 1, Cardinals win series, 3-2
Game 1: Dodgers 6, Braves 1
Game 2: Braves 4, Dodgers 3
Game 3: Dodgers 13, Braves 6
Game 4: Dodgers 4, Braves 3, Dodgers win series, 3-1
AL Division Series
Game 1: Red Sox 12, Rays 2
Game 2: Red Sox 7, Rays 4
Game 3: Rays 5, Red Sox 4
Game 4: Red Sox 3, Rays 1, Red Sox win series, 3-1
Game 1: Tigers 3, A's 2
Game 2: A's 1, Tigers 0
Game 3: A's 6, Tigers 3
Game 4: Tigers 8, A's 6, Series tied, 2-2
Game 5: Tigers at A's, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET (TBS)
NL Championship Series (All games on TBS)
Game 1: Dodgers at Cardinals, Friday, TBD
Game 2: Dodgers at Cardinals, Saturday, TBD
Game 3: Cardinals at Dodgers, Monday, TBD
Game 4: Cardinals at Dodgers, Tuesday, TBD
Game 5*: Cardinals at Dodgers, Wednesday, TBD
Game 6*: Dodgers at Cardinals, Friday, Oct. 18, TBD
Game 7*: Dodgers at Cardinals, Saturday, Oct. 19, TBD
* - if necessary
AL Championship Series (All games on FOX)
Game 1: Tigers/A's winner at Red Sox, Saturday, TBD
Game 2: Tigers/A's winner at Red Sox, Sunday, TBD
Game 3: Red Sox at Tigers/A's winner, Tuesday, TBD
Game 4: Red Sox at Tigers/A's winner, Wednesday, TBD
Game 5*: Red Sox at Tigers/A's winner, Thursday, Oct. 17, TBD
Game 6*: Tigers/A's winner at Red Sox, Saturday, Oct. 19, TBD
Game 7*: Tigers/A's winner at Red Sox, Sunday, Oct. 20, TBD
* - if necessary
World Series begins: Oct. 23