ST. LOUIS -- Given the outcomes the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals have created this season, a win-or-go-home Game 5 is a fitting conclusion.
Tonight, the decisive game of the National League Division Series distills their previous meetings, a taut 23-game matchup, into one contest.
"You live for those situations," Andrew McCutchen said. "This is the game that we play. They didn't say it was going to be easy getting here to where we are. We've done a good job of getting in this position. We live for all those moments. Anything can happen in this game."
Absent a sample size large enough to correct for game-to-game oddities, the game tonight could hinge on anything, large or small.
Pirates vs. Cardinals, 8:07 p.m., Busch Stadium, St. Louis.
- TV, Radio:
TBS, KDKA-FM (93.7).
RHP Gerrit Cole (1-0, 1.50) vs. RHP Adam Wainwright (1-0, 1.29).
- Key matchup:
Neil Walker enters tonight's game without a hit in the NLDS, going 0 for 16 with a walk and four strikeouts. Tough as Wainwright is, Walker has hit him well, going 6 for 19 with a home run and three walks. Andrew McCutchen, whose five hits are tied with Pedro Alvarez for the most in the NLDS, also hits Wainwright well. He is 12 for 28 with four doubles, a triple and a home run against him
- Hidden stat:
Wainwright has allowed 35 fewer hits at home than on the road this season in the same number of starts.
"There's no telling," manager Clint Hurdle said. "You got to go out and play. It can happen on the bases. It can happen on a relay throw. All aspects of the game are laid out there."
Both teams feel good about the pitchers they will send to the Busch Stadium mound. Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals' gold standard who held the Pirates to one run in seven innings in Game 1, brings his 2.27 career postseason ERA into the decisive game.
Wainwright honed his playoff skills in the bullpen during the Cardinals' World Series run in 2006, including the forever-replayed called strike three against current teammate Carlos Beltran to end the NLCS. His first postseason start featured eight innings of one-run ball in the 2009 NLDS against a 21-year-old sophomore named Clayton Kershaw. Tommy John ligament replacement surgery forced him to miss the Cardinals' 2011 World Series title; after a rough start in the 2012 NLDS, he redeemed himself in the championship series with seven innings of one-run ball.
Gerrit Cole will oppose Wainwright in his second postseason start. In his Game 2 playoff debut, Cole helped the Pirates even the series, holding the Cardinals to one run in six innings.
Wainwright and Cole represent the high level of pitching that, for the most part, has kept the series close. The Pirates enter the game hitting 23 of 122, or a ..189 average with 14 runs and four home runs. The Cardinals are 24 of 125, a hitting .192 average with 15 runs and four homers. Pirates pitchers have a 3.34 ERA; Cardinals pitchers a 3.09 ERA.
"I think we thought it was going to be as good as this, but, certainly, I don't know if we all thought the pitching would be this good," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "Obviously, the first two games were a little bit more high-scoring, but it seems like somebody's throwing a pretty good game every single day out there. We're hoping that it's our turn again."
Neither staff has avoided issues. A.J. Burnett allowed seven runs in two-plus innings during a Game 1 loss. St. Louis' Lance Lynn had similar issues in Game 2. Cole, a rookie, stepped up in that game, but fellow rookie Michael Wacha raised the bar in Game 4, taking a no-hitter into the eighth.
Pedro Alvarez, playing in his first postseason, enlivened the Pirates offense in the same way that longtime playoff stalwart Carlos Beltran has for the Cardinals. Alvarez went 5 for 13 with three home runs in the first four games, Beltran 4 for 14 with two homers.
The NLDS mirrors the season series. The Pirates took 10 games, the Cardinals nine, with only two total runs (Pirates 85, Cardinals 87) separating them. The Pirates went 7-3 at PNC Park, the Cardinals 6-3 at Busch Stadium.
"We've played them close," Hurdle said. "It has been a very respectful, challenged series."
As close as the series has been, it has also played out as a series of contradictions.
Aside from Wainwright vs. Cole, veteran vs. rookie, tonight, improbable moments have turned games. Russell Martin, who had one sacrifice fly in the 2012-13 regular seasons, flied out to drive in the go-ahead run in the sixth of Game 3. He did so off Seth Maness, whose 68.4 percent ground-ball rate ranked second among pitchers with at least 60 innings.
Two innings later, Mark Melancon allowed his second homer this season. He allowed one in 72 regular season-innings, and it came April 14 against Cincinnati's Joey Votto. In that same inning, Alvarez, a poor hitter against left-handers, chopped an RBI single against Kevin Siegrist, who has dominated left-handed batters.
Charlie Morton, a sinker-baller who allowed one home run in his final 781/3 regular-season innings and ranks fifth to Maness' second in ground-ball rate, allowed what would be the deciding two-run homer to Matt Holliday in Game 4.
"You've got to make plays, you've got to execute pitches, you've got to have quality at-bats," Hurdle said.
"Every once in a while, something completely apart from that can happen."
McCutchen said the Pirates could draw from their wild-card playoff win against the Reds, which sent them to the NLDS. Walker agreed.
"You have to have that edge, you have to have that focus," Walker said. "We've got to be better than we were in Game 1. It's do or die."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM