The key to this series for the Bucs could be likely Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole, who closed the season strong. The Pirates won all five of his September starts, as he pitched to a 1.69 ERA.
Either way, should the Bucs get a lead their bullpen is more than capable, especially since moving Jason Grilli back to the closer's role. Pittsburgh's 55 saves led the NL, while its 2.89 bullpen ERA was second in the league only to Atlanta.
Grilli was leading the NL in saves as late as July 21, but missed a few weeks with a forearm strain. Righty Mark Melancon filled in more than admirably while he was out, but seemed to run out of steam down the stretch, prompting Hurdle to go back to Grilli.
While Pittsburgh may be getting its first taste of postseason action since 1992, St. Louis is holding court in October for the third straight year and for the 10th time in the last 14 seasons.
The Cardinals have won four playoff series in the past two seasons and have claimed two World Series titles in the past seven years.
Amazingly, Mike Matheny's team keeps chugging along no matter what obstacles seem to be thrown its way. The Cardinals also enter the postseason hot, having won their last six games and 10 of the last 12 in the regular season.
McCutchen may be the NL frontrunner for an MVP, but the Cards have a pair of candidates as well in catcher Yadier Molina and second baseman Matt Carpenter.
In addition to being the best defensive catcher in the game, Molina has also become a more than capable bat in the lineup. This year, he hit .319 and drove in 80 runs. Carpenter was a real surprise, though, as the rookie earned an All-Star berth, hitting .318, while scoring a major league-best 126 runs.
"I don't know where we'd be without him -- having that leadoff hitter and having the kind of season that he's having and what he's done defensively," Matheny said of Carpenter. "It's just off the charts, as far as how good he has been and how much he's proven just what a solid baseball player he is -- no matter where we put him."
Outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran provide the pop, as they combined for 46 home runs and 178 runs driven in. Holliday also scored 103 times.
"This organization and this team has always been able to play meaningful games," Beltran said. "We don't panic. We feel prepared."
The key for St. Louis will be jumping out in front on a hot Pirates team that seems to be gaining momentum by the day. And who better to do just that in Game 1 than NL wins leader Adam Wainwright, who won 19 games this season and pitched to a 3.00 ERA in three starts versus the Pirates.
Righty Lance Lynn will go in Game 2. Lynn almost lost his spot in the rotation, but he closed the year with four quality starts and allowed just three earned runs over his final 24 2/3 innings.
"I think it's something that he's earned," Matheny said. "Right now, I think he also has a great amount of confidence and that's something he's going to be able to take to another level. He's been very consistent here in his last couple starts and really has a good tempo and feel off the mound."
Plus, he's pitched well at home, where he was 9-3 with a 2.82 ERA. Not to mention this will be his third postseason run with the Cardinals.
While the Pirates are seemingly set in their bullpen, the Cardinals' late-game situation is a mess. Edward Mujica saved 37 games for them this year, but was awful in September and Matheny gave rookie Trevor Rosenthal all the save chances in the final week of the regular season.
If he goes that way in this series he opens a huge eighth inning hole that could be filled by another pair of rookies in lefty Kevin Siegrist and right- hander Carlos Martinez.
There is no arguing that St. Louis is the more experienced team. But, there seems to be something going on with this Pirates team. If they are to have a chance, though, they must get a split at Busch, where they lost six of nine games this season.
Pittsburgh narrowly won the season series, 10-9, thanks to victories in seven of the 10 matchups at PNC.
And don't discredit that crowd. It was a raucous scene on Tuesday. It should be the same way next week, especially if the Bucs return home with a win in St. Louis.
PREDICTION: PIRATES in FOUR