The pitchers: The Pirates won’t have their most consistent pitcher, lefty Francisco Liriano, until Game 3, and he realistically can pitch only once in the series after winning the one-game playoff Tuesday night. They’ll open with veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett. Veteran Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA) is the obvious choice to start Game 1 for the Cardinals, followed by Lance Lynn.
The hitters: The Cardinals scored 77 more runs than any other NL team and have a lineup in which every regular has a better OPS than the NL average of .703. The Pirates are anchored by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who reached based four times in the wild-card win over the Reds. But their lineup is balanced, with midseason additions Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau allowing Manager Clint Hurdle to drop NL home run champ Pedro Alvarez to sixth, providing pop up and down the order.
The story lines: The Pirates, with 20 losing seasons sandwiched between postseason appearances, have become America’s favorite underdog. The Cardinals, in the postseason for the ninth time in the past 14 years, are the methodical, corporate killers. Head-to-head, they were essentially even in the regular season, with the Cardinals winning 10 times, the Pirates 9.
Prediction: Cardinals in five.
The pitchers: The Dodgers will throw Clayton Kershaw twice (if necessary). His resume: an NL best in ERA (1.83), strikeouts (232), and walks and hits per inning pitched (.915). But the Dodgers back him up with Zack Greinke (2.63 ERA) and Hyun-jin Ryu (3.00). Kris Medlen gets the ball for the Braves in Game 1, and over the past month he has 0.84 ERA and a .204 batting average against. But the strength of the Braves’ staff is the bullpen, which led the NL with a 2.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Closer Craig Kimbrel has led the league in saves for three straight years, and his career ERA is 1.39.
The hitters: The Dodgers are banged up. Former MVP Matt Kemp won’t play because of an ankle injury, and slugger Andre Ethier is iffy with his own balky ankle. Yasiel Puig sputtered over the final month, hitting .189 in his last 17 games. The Braves struck out a whopping 22.6 percent of the time, worst in the NL, and center fielder B.J. Upton — he of the five-year, $75.25-million contract — posted the second-lowest on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.557) of any player with more than 400 plate appearances.
The story lines: Braves catcher Brian McCann has gained a reputation as a policeman of the game over the past two weeks, so if tempers flare, watch him. Big picture: Both franchises are trying to shake postseason struggles. The Braves lost the wild-card game in 2012 and had lost their last five division series before that. The Dodgers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2009 and have lost six of the eight postseason series they’ve played since winning the 1988 World Series.
Prediction: Dodgers in four.
— Barry Svrluga