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The Pirates will open their NLDS series this afternoon in St. Louis against the Cardinals. Coming off Tuesday's emotionally-charged winner-move-on match-up with the Reds, the Bucs will look to their swashbuckling, come on go with it, leader A.J. Burnett to get it started.
Much has been made about Burnett's tenure with the Pirates--the attitude and leadership he's provided dovetailing with the team on-field success. Rightly so. He has been a mentor to many of the young players and a charasmatic, rallying-figure for the fans. Every start Burnett makes from here on could be his last as he has not committed to playing beyond this season.
So today A.J. gets the ball and the Pirates chances of winning the series rest squarely on his shoulders. Not just his obviously, but he will be paramount. By starting Game 1 Burnett is also in-line to start Game 5 should it be necessary. On the season Burnett has made 30 starts, thrown 191 innings. He's 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA and xFIP of 2.92, 209 K and 67 BB. He has a WHIP of 1.215 and an excellent HR/9 of 0.52. His K/9 of 9.8 lead all NL qualifiers this year. But Burnett has been erratic in the second half.
As Pat notes in his excellent Pirates blog Burnett has faced the Cardinals four times in 12 starts since July 30. Those starts alternated home and away and Burnett was masterful at home (14IP, 7H, 2R, 15K, 4BB--2 Pirates wins) and got shelled on the road (7.1IP, 14H, 10R, 8K, 2BB--2 Pirates losses). Busch is also the scene of the crime where AJ gave up 12H and 12R in 2.2IP May 2, 2012. In his four career starts at Busch the numbers aren't encouraging 16IP, 31H, 24R, 16K, 6BB, 13.51ERA. In his last two outings this season, in very meaningful games both against Cincinnati, AJ has been tremendous putting up 15IP, 9H, 3R, 18K, 4BB as the Pirates won both times.
This season Burnett has basically become a two-pitch pitcher relying on a low-90s fastball (60%) and a devastating low-to-mid-80s curve (35%) that is his punchout pitch of choice. He'll mix up his 2-and 4-seam fastballs, with left-handed hitters seeing a little more of the 2-seamer and the occasional change.
Today it won't be easy. On the other side the Bucs will be facing Adam Wainwright, arguably the second-best pitcher in the NL. Wainwright has faced the Pirates three times this year, all since July 31 and gone 1-0 with 2 no-decisions. The last time was Sept. 7 at Busch Stadium when he went 7IP, 2H, 0R, 8K, 2BB and the Cards won 5-0. He won't look to overpower hitters but has a devasting three-pitch mix with an high-80s cutter (40%), low-90s sinker (30%) and mid-70s curve (30%).
With Gerrit Cole slated to go tomorrow and Francisco Liriano at home Sunday afternoon the Pirates have to feel good about the match-ups in this series. But to win it, I think the Pirates will need to win one of Burnett's starts. If he gets them off on the right foot and gives the Cards a full dose of #STFD, there is a pretty good chance the Pirates will be looking at some mid-October baseball and an opponent not residing in the NL Central.