Before the postseason, Pedro Alvarez looked like the key guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as much as one player can be the key guy (this isn't basketball, after all).
Alvarez is a prodigious slugger -- he tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs -- but he also hit just .233 and led the league with 186 strikeouts. He can carry a team when he gets hot, like he did in June when he hit .309 with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. But he's also prone to spells of strikeouts and little production, like when he hit .180 in April or a 25-game stretch from late August through into September when he hit .178 with just two homers.
A good sign for the Pirates was Alvarez snapping out of that last slump with two home runs the final weekend of the regular season in Cincinnati. He went 0-for-3 in the wild-card win over the Reds, hitting a sacrifice fly, and then homered for the Pirates' only run in 9-1 loss in Game 1 against the Cardinals and went 2-for-4 with another home run in Game 2.
So Alvarez has been swinging the bat well, which set the stage for two key plate appearances in Sunday's critical Game 3, which ended up a 5-3 victory for the Pirates -- critical because, of the past 15 division series that were tied 1-1, the Game 3 winner has won the series 14 times (the exception being the 2011 Cardinals beating the Phillies).
In the sixth inning, with the game deadlocked 2-2, runners at second and third with one out, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had starter Joe Kelly intentionally walk Alvarez and brought in ground-ball specialist Seth Maness to pitch to Russell Martin, who hit a sacrifice fly. You can quibble about Matheny's move here, but it looked like a toss-up: Maness had a double-play rate of 30 percent in possible DP situations; Alvarez had a strikeout rate of 30 percent during the regular season. The third option would have been using lefty Randy Choate to face Alvarez and go for the strikeout, and Choate is basically here to get Alvarez out in a big situation. But again, Maness versus Martin isn't a terrible matchup for St. Louis, even if it did load the bases (which I'm rarely a fan of).
(If anything, the bigger issue was letting Kelly start the inning with Andrew McCutchen leading off. Considering the Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers on the roster and considering the magnitude of the game, letting Kelly go through the order a third time was the risky move. Numbers show pitchers fare worse the third time through an order, and while Kelly did have a 2.69 ERA for the Cardinals, he also outpitched his peripherals; there was good logic to go with the bullpen to start the inning. McCutchen walked and Marlon Byrd doubled with one out, knocking out Kelly.)
Anyway, Martin hit a sac fly off Maness to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead.
To the eighth inning, after Carlos Beltran homered to tie the game (paging Reggie Jackson: somebody wants to borrow your nickname). Matheny went to rookie Carlos Martinez with McCutchen again leading off -- choosing Martinez over veteran Edward Mujica, the team's closer most of the season who hit the wall in September when he allowed 18 hits and nine runs in 7 1/3 innings.
Martinez just turned 22 and has just 28 innings in the majors but has a monster arm that can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. If they say the postseason is about power pitching then you can't argue too much with this move, and Matheny and the Cards have decided they're going with the kids this October -- installing rookie Trevor Rosenthal as the closer late in the year, giving other key outs to rookie relievers Maness and Kevin Siegrist, and they'll start Michael Wacha, another rookie, in Game 4.
But Martinez is also a bit of a one-pitch guy with an inconsistent curveball and batters did hit .313 off his fastball. McCutchen fouled off a 101-mph heater but Martinez then threw two balls and McCutchen knew what was coming and doubled to left field off a 97-mph heater. Justin Morneau grounded to short, with McCutchen foolishly darting for third where he was easily thrown out. Marlon Byrd walked on a 3-2 curveball -- seven of the eight pitches Martinez threw him were curves, certainly an interesting set of calls by Yadier Molina -- setting the stage for Alvarez.
Matheny correctly went to the hard-throwing lefty Siegrist, who averaged 95 mph and touches 99 on his fastball (where do the Cardinals find all these guys?). Alvarez hit just .180 against left-handers with just three of his 36 home runs. You could argue that Clint Hurdle should have hit for Alvarez, but Alvarez is one of his guys, do or die.
Toeing the rubber, Siegrist threw three fastballs. At 1-1, Alvarez lined the third fastball into right for an RBI single, scoring pinch-runner Josh Harrison. Good decision by Matheny, better result by Alvarez. Russell Martin added another RBI single for the final margin.
One interesting note is how the Pirates played aggressively in the field -- it hurt when McCutchen got caught at third -- and also on the managerial front. Hurdle pinch-hit for shortstop Clint Barmes with Jose Tabata in the sixth when the Pirates led 3-2; with two runners on, he was hoping to get an insurance run and was willing to sacrifice defense. While Matheny waited a couple batters too long to pull Kelly, Hurdle removed Francisco Liriano after six innings, even though he'd allowed just three hits and lefty Jon Jay was leading off the seventh for St. Louis. Liriano was only at 101 pitches, so he could have remained in the game, but Hurdle was not going to wait a batter too long to remove his starter.
Wacha faces Charlie Morton on Monday, and I'd give the pitching edge to Wacha, but the emotional and home-field edge to the Pirates. The Cardinals need leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter (.091, .231 OBP in three games) to get on base in front of Beltran. Both pens are in good shape and with an off day on Tuesday neither manager should hesitate to go to their relievers.
In other words: I expect another key matchup for Mr. Alvarez.