Ron Cook: Pirates-Cardinals series is an early treat



It's a little like the Baltimore Ravens coming to town early in the NFL season. Or the Philadelphia Flyers early in the NHL season. Imagine that, an early April baseball series that will command our attention. The St. Louis Cardinals are at PNC Park for a weekend set against the Pirates. The crowds should be electric. The baseball has a chance to be fabulous.

What a difference one magical season makes. For more than two decades, the Pirates didn't matter much after opening day. Now, after their shocking run to the playoffs in 2013, a series against the Cardinals can't get here soon enough. The Cardinals were the best in the National League last season. They could be the best in baseball this season. It will be interesting to get an early glimpse of how the Pirates match up after starting 2014 by taking two of three from the Chicago Cubs despite a 3-2 loss Thursday at PNC Park.

Nothing will be decided in the next three days, of course. Not with 156 games to follow. The Pirates could win all three and the Cardinals probably still will show up Monday to play their home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals lost four of five July 29-Aug. 1 last season at PNC Park, yet somehow managed to regroup and make it to the World Series. The Pirates could lose the three games and exit the weekend with a 2-4 record, which still would be better than their 1-5 start last season. They were hammered in three games in St. Louis in early September and left for dead, but ended up getting a wild-card berth.

Please, repeat after me: It's a long, long season.

But that doesn't mean these games shouldn't be enjoyed, even savored, after 20 years of baseball hell in Pittsburgh. These three have extra intrigue because the Pirates and Cardinals met in the playoffs last season. Hold your thumb and forefinger an inch apart. That's how close the Pirates were to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. They won Games 2 and 3 and had a chance to shut down the Cardinals in Game 4 at home only to see Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha pitch one of the great postseason games of all time in a 2-1 win. The Cardinals closed out the series in Game 5 in St. Louis on their way to the World Series.

"We know we hung with the best," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said Thursday.

The Cardinals are stacked again. Their powerful lineup lost right fielder Carlos Beltran and third baseman David Freese in the offseason, but added shortstop Jhonny Peralta and center fielder Peter Bourjos. They still have great starting pitching and a bullpen that rivals the Pirates'. Wacha won't pitch this weekend, but it still won't be easy for the struggling Pirates hitters. Shelby Miller starts tonight after winning 15 games in 2013. Joe Kelly, who won 10 games last season with a 2.69 ERA, pitches Saturday night. And don't even ask about Sunday when the Pirates have to face the great Adam Wainwright, who blew them away in Game 5 of the playoffs.

It's hard to say the Pirates are as strong, especially after watching the three games against the Cubs. Their pitching is fine. The bullpen just might be the best in baseball. As for the starters, it was encouraging that Wandy Rodriguez, despite being the loser Thursday, pitched six innings, getting better as the game went on. It also was nice to see Edinson Volquez pitch well in his Pirates debut, working two innings in relief to save a bullpen that was taxed Wednesday night by a 16-inning game. He was awful all spring -- awful for the past three seasons, actually -- but allowed just one single in two innings, making his expected start Sunday against Wainwright seem like just a little less of a horrible mismatch.

But the Pirates hitters were lousy. It's not unexpected because management brought in no help for an offense that often was impotent last season. The team hit .175 in the three games against the Cubs and scored a total of seven runs in 33-plus innings. Pedro Alvarez went 1 for 15, Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin 1 for 10, Jordy Mercer 2 for 13. Only Walker and Starling Marte had three hits. The Cubs' Emilio Bonifacio had 11.

"We know we have to do better offensively if we're going to beat a team like the Cardinals," Walker said.

A lack of runs sabotaged the Pirates last season in Games 4 and 5 of the NLDS. Wacha had a perfect game for five innings and took a no-hitter into the eighth before giving up a home run to Alvarez, the Pirates' only hit of Game 4. Wainwright was dominant in a 6-1 complete-game win in Game 5.

But the Pirates still had their shot in the ninth inning of Game 4. Look at your thumb and forefinger again. McCutchen, the NL's MVP, just missed crushing a pitch from reliever Trevor Rosenthal with Walker at first base, popping out to center field to end the game.

"It could have been a great story," McCutchen said Thursday. "You think about it a little in the offseason, how close we were. But that's baseball. You can't do anything about it now."

Well, there is something.

"You try to make new history," McCutchen said.

It starts tonight with the Cardinals.

Enjoy.

Savor.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published April 3, 2014 11:40 PM

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