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Three keys for Pirates in NL Division Series

Three keys for Pirates in NL Division Series

ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates' entrance into the National League Division Series against the Cardinals is in interesting contrast to their mindset prior to taking on the Reds in the NL Wild Card Game. Pittsburgh had head-to-head momentum against Cincinnati coming off a sweep the previous weekend. If that proved instrumental in the 6-2 NL Wild Card win, how do the Bucs deal with the opposite effect?

NLDS

The last time the teams met here, the Cardinals leveled the Pirates in three games by a cumulative 26-10 score, knocking them out of the NL Central lead for keeps. The Cards were in all their glory, spending the weekend batting .378 with runners in scoring position, and as manager Clint Hurdle put it, "pretty much handing it to us for three days."

So the amnesia for which the Bucs pride themselves will be put to a stern test. Fortunately for them, one of their key guys is their team elder -- and you know what they say about short-term memory fading as a man gets older while stuff that happened longer ago stays with him.

A.J. Burnett

The last time the 37-year-old right-hander faced the Cardinals, leading off the aforementioned series, they knocked him around for five runs in three innings. But five earlier times against them, Burnett went undefeated, had a 2.58 ERA and held St. Louis to a composite .188 average.

As the nominal leader of the staff, Burnett would be a central character anyway. Add the fact he would pitch the series' two most important games -- No. 1, on which hinges the quick upper hand, and if needed, No. 5, on which would hinge survival -- and the righty becomes critical. Burnett has been progressively sharper in four starts since that Busch Stadium debacle.

Tony Watson and Justin Wilson

Given that so much of the Cardinals' punch is from the right side, their record against left-handed starters (19-23) is a mystery. But it is also fact, establishing them as relatively vulnerable against southpaws. At some point this season, the Bucs had three of them in their rotation, but only Francisco Liriano remains.

However, the Pirates still have a duo of lefties in their bullpen, and Wilson and Watson figure to pop up in crucial situations throughout the series. They are two of the underrated members of that Shark Tank, but they ranked second and third in appearances while producing nearly identical, solid lines. Watson did not allow a home run to a lefty hitter (in 102 at-bats) during the regular season, then Cincinnati's Shin-Soo Choo got to him in the NL Wild Card Game; you know he and Matt Adams will be going steady (seeing so much of each other).

Justin Morneau

Yes, he is a disciplined hitter prone to seeing a lot of pitches and wearing down starters. Yes, his glove has played an unexpectedly big role. But the Pirates got Morneau to get long hits -- all they talked about when he came from Minnesota on Aug. 31 was that he was tied for the Major League lead that month with nine home runs -- and he has not.

Morneau will remain Pittsburgh's everyday cleanup hitter with a quartet of St. Louis right-handers lined up. He has two RBIs in 20 games -- including the first playoff game -- from that spot. And he is still looking for his first home run since Aug. 30. One of Morneau's drawbacks has been having to get to know a new league and its pitchers, but he has already seen the Cardinals in an earlier series and now will be getting looks at the same ones for a week. He is set to go off.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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