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Home runs, a Pirates strength, ultimately end their season

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When Adam Wainwright got Pedro Alvarez to swing and miss at his 48th curveball of the night, it ended the Pirates' magical 2013 season. Most of us understandably scoffed when, back in March, Clint Hurdle laid out his roadmap for turning the 78-win 2012 Pirates into the 95-win 2013 Pirates. But Clint got the last laugh as the Bucs finished 94-68 and captivated the baseball world with their first playoff appearance since 1992. It seemed the whole country, except for a small sliver of red-wearing NL Central fans in the Midwest, was rooting for the Black & Gold.

The success of the Pirates' pitching and defense has been well-chronicled throughout the year and there is no question they anchored the team’s turnaround. But one of the overlooked keys to the 2013 Pirates was the home run--both the Bucs' abilities to hit it, and to prevent it.

The long ball was the major weapon in the Pirates' offensive arsenal. The team tied for third in the NL with 161 home runs despite playing home games at PNC Park with its expansive left field.

The Bucs pitching staff was the best in all of baseball keeping balls in parks, allowing only 101 homers. And it wasn’t close. Next-best was the Cardinals at 112 and after that the Marlins at 121. The National League average was 143 homers allowed.

The Pirates rode three homers at a raucous PNC Park to a wild card win over the Cincinnati to open the playoffs, setting up a much-anticipated NLDS match-up with St. Louis.

The 19-game season series between the Pirates and Cardinals produced some fascinating statistics. The overall numbers couldn’t have been closer. The Pirates won the series 10-9, though they were outscored 87-85. But while the final tallies were close, only five of the 19 games were decided by two runs or less. Of the last six games between the two teams heading into the playoffs the closest was a 12-8 Cardinals win, with the Bucs scoring seven runs in the eighth and ninth to provide the window dressing. These two evenly-matched teams were playing blowouts.

The Pirates' advantage could be seen in the home run numbers. In the 19 games, the Pirates out-homered the Cards 19-5. Amazingly, after the Cards hit three home runs against the Bucs in the third game of the season series on April 26, the Pirates held them without a homer for the next 134 innings. It wasn’t until Yadier Molina homered in the 12-8 win on Sept. 6 that the Cards went deep again. In all, the Cards only homered in three of the 19 games between the two and only hit two HRs off Pirates starters all year, both off Jonathan Sanchez on April 26. Conversely, the Bucs homered in 12 of the 19 games.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, things changed in the playoffs when it mattered most. In Game 1 the Cards hit their first homer off a Pirates starter other than Sanchez when Carlos Beltran took A.J. Burnett deep in the third inning for a 3-0 lead. It was another blowout, as the Cards won 9-1. The Bucs continued their homering ways in Game 2 (an Alvarez homer had provided their only run in Game 1), riding homers by Alvarez and Starling Marte to their own 7-1 blowout win. After two games the Pirates had out-homered the Cards 3-2 and the series was tied at 1.

And this is where the script flipped. After being out-homered 22-7 on the season, the Cards found the power switch and rode the long-ball to a series victory. Carlos Beltran hit the only homer of Game 3 to tie it in the eighth, but the Pirates pushed two across two in their half to take a 2-1 series lead. In an elimination Game 4 at PNC Park it was Matt Holliday’s two-run shot off Charlie Morton that provided all the runs the Cards would need in a 2-1 victory. (An Alvarez homer again accounted for the only Pirates run.)

It all came down to Game 5. Gerrit Cole got the nod as the Pirates starter. Cole had given up only seven homers in 117.1 IP during the regular season, but he did give one up to Molina in Game 2, the first he had allowed in 39.1 innings. If Cole could keep the ball in the park ...

He didn’t. David Freese hit a two-run homer off Cole in the second, Matt Adams added a two-run homer off Mark Melancon in the eighth, and the Cardinals cruised to a 6-1 series clinching victory. It was only their second multi-homer game in 24 between the two clubs.

After being out homered 22-7 in the first 22 games between the two teams, the Cards out-homered the Pirates 4-1 in the last three games and 6-4 in the series. The Cardinals homered in all five games of the playoff series after only homering in three of the 19 regular season games. They homered off four of the Pirates starters in the series after taking only one starter deep during the season. As a result, it’s the Cards talking on the Dodgers. And, in a reversal of roles, it's now the Cards, not the Pirates, digging the long ball.