Pirates ride momentum into Game 1 of NLDS against St. Louis

(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."

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.

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.

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 their 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."

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.

Wainwright was 4-0 in his final five starts, working seven or more innings in all of them except for a tuneup his last time out.

"All in all, a Cy Young-caliber season," Matheny said. "We're not afraid to put him on the mound against anybody."

Pittsburgh narrowly won the season series, 10-9, but lost six of nine in St. Louis.