(SportsNetwork.com) - It's been 21 long years since the Pittsburgh Pirates have been in this position. Who can blame them for wanting to stick around a little longer?
Pittsburgh will continue its first postseason run since 1992 on Thursday when they start the best-of-five National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
"We know the Cardinals and they know us; there won't be any secrets," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said.
Of course, these teams are no stranger to one another, having played 19 times in the regular season. In fact from June 21 on, it was essentially a two-horse race for bragging rights in the NL Central before St. Louis eventually pulled away from Pittsburgh and captured its first division title since 2009 by virtue of a league-best 97-65 mark.
So, the Pirates had to settle for a wild card spot, despite finishing above .500 (94-68) for the first time since that 1992 season. Nobody in the Steel City was complaining, though, as they hadn't experienced postseason baseball since Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium.
And Pittsburgh rewarded its fans on Tuesday, as Francisco Liriano fired seven innings of one-run ball and Russell Martin cracked a pair of solo home runs in the Pirates' 6-2 win over Cincinnati in the NL wild card game.
"We didn't talk about one and done, we talked about one and run," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Win one and run to St. Louis."
The Pirates spent a good deal of time atop the division and were 26 games above .500 on Aug. 8. However, they were a .500 team in 48 games after that, but won five of six to close the campaign and secured homefield advantage in the one-game wild card.
Pittsburgh had five All-Stars at this year's Midsummer Classic, but none shined brighter than Andrew McCutchen, who continued to state his case as one of the best young players in the game.
McCutchen hit .317 with 21 home runs, 84 RBI, 27 stolen bases, a .404 on-base percentage and .508 slugging percentage in 157 games. He became just the fourth major league center fielder since 1947 to have consecutive seasons of hitting .300 with a .400 slugging percentage and .500 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, joining Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.
The Pirates are going to need more than McCuthchen at the plate to get past St. Louis.
General manager Neal Huntington realized that midway through the season and after a few failed attempts at improving his team's offense eventually acquired former AL MVP Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd, who homered in Tuesday's wild card win.
Of course, third baseman Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL lead with 36 home runs and drove in 100 RBI, but still only hit .233 with a whopping NL-high 186 strikeouts.
Another big reason behind the Pirates' success this season has been their starting pitching, especially Liriano, who, despite missing the first month of the season, ended the year 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA.
Liriano was even better at home, where the Pirates lost just one of his 12 starts, including Tuesday's contest. They hope that trend continues, as he'll likely get the call in Game 3 when the series shifts to Pittsburgh.
Veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett will get the call for the Bucs in Game 1. Burnett was only 10-11 this season, but pitched to a 3.03 ERA and is no stranger to postseason baseball.
"It means a lot," Burnett said about getting the ball for Game 1. "I wouldn't want it any other way. They've come a long way, these men in here. Step 2 was tonight. We have a lot of work still to be done, a lot of games to be played. It was a great win, a great step. Now we have to get ready for another series."
Burnett has pitched to a 5.08 ERA in seven postseason games, but is 1-0 with a 1.54 ERA in his two Division Series outings.
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