If I had St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny’s job, Adam Wainwright wouldn’t have taken the mound for the ninth inning on Wednesday night in St. Louis. As small a thing as it sounds, I would have wanted to gear Wainwright up to pitch on three days’ rest in Game 2 of the 2013 National League Championship Series, when Clayton Kershaw will be on the mound for the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers.

By letting Wainwright go back out there, after 96 pitches through eight frames, Matheny all but precluded that, even if Dodgers manager Don Mattingly did bring Kershaw back on three days after 124 pitches during Los Angeles’s four-game knockout of the Atlanta Braves. Wainwright needed only 11 pitches to finish off the Pirates, and with a five-run cushion with which to play, they weren’t high-stress offerings. Still, with those five runs as margin for error, I would have trotted in a lesser arm, a reliever who would be wholly refreshed by the off day before Game 1 of the NLCS.

I’m a stick in the mud, though. Matheny isn’t. Matheny let Wainwright finish off the Pirates, that magical mystery team that tried to steal America’s heart, and when Wainwright did—with ruthless efficiency, and three straight swings and misses by Pedro Alvarez—the scene was nothing short of joyous. There are too few recent examples of starting pitchers getting a chance to go wild after finishing off an opponent in the postseason. Cliff Lee got to do it in 2010. Roy Halladay threw a playoff no-hitter that same year, although not to close out a series. The moment Wainwright got to savor, though, and that inarguably felt slightly more special because he wasn’t hopping a railing to join others in mobbing Trevor Rosenthal, has become a rare one.

That’s just one way that the NLDS between the NL Central rivals gave fans a rare feeling of exhileration. Three of the five games in the series were lopsided, at least in the end, but between the stirring starting pitching (even, in some cases, in losing causes) and the big hits that abounded, each contest still packed a punch.

David Freese  was a star, not that long ago. His age-29 season, 2012, was his first one not heavily interrupted by injuries, and in it, he hit .293/.372/.467, with 20 home runs. That, of course, came after a 2011 postseason in which he won both the NLCS and the World Series MVP. Thanks to the injuries, and a late peak, and a quick decline, his heroics in Game 6 of the World Series that year might live on long past any memory of how good a pure hitter he actually was.

On Wednesday night, though, the man whose 2013 might well have been his last season as a full-time player (he hit .262/.340/.381, with nine homers, in 138 games) refused to be forgotten. His two-run home run opened the scoring, and although the Cardinals would add more, the Pirates never even matched his production on that single swing.

Freese might be off the St. Louis roster by Opening Day 2014. Matt Adams might be, too. The portly lefty slugger won’t have a good place to play next season, if Allen Craig returns at full strength. Unlike Freese, though, Adams will depart only if some team is willing to pay for what seems to be a very solid power bat. Adams hit 17 homers in roughly half a season of playing time in 2013. His strikeout rate is worrisome and he doesn’t walk all that much, but he not only singled through the left side (against a shift to the right) on Wednesday, but put the game out of reach with a companion to Freese’s two-run shot. He’s a very real candidate to play every day, and could be trade bait as the Cardinals look to shore up shortstop and/or the back of their rotation for 2014.

The NLCs should be a blast. St. Louis and Los Angeles are the two most dominant NL franchises of the post-World War II era, but they have a strikingly short post-season history. They clashed in the 1985 NLCS, which St. Louis won, and in a pair of Division Series. That’s all. This series should write a very entertaining new chapter in their intertwining narrative. I’ll preview it more closely on Friday.

As for the Pirates, it’s important to balance your emotions, expectations and projections of this club. They had a sensational season, winning 94 regular-season and three post-season games, and this loss doesn’t invalidate any of that. Andrew McCutchen is one of the game’s true superstars, and should get recognition of that on the heels of this campaign. Gerrit Cole took a short time to adjust to the Majors when called up mid-season, but has figured out how to miss big-league bats, and looks like an ace. The famr system remains exceptionally well-stocked.

That said, it’s perfectly fine—even necessary—to mourn the end of this opportunity. The Pirates get no extra credit heading into 2014 for having been good in 2013, and the competition in the division might only get stiffer. St. Louis isn’t going anywhere. They’re better than the Pirates right now, and similarly talented in the minor leagues. The Reds will still have Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce and others going forward, and have broken free of the bonds of Dusty Baker’s mismanagement. The Brewers had a calamitous 2013, but their offense could be the best in the division—perhaps the whole National League—next season. The Cubs are the still-sleeping giants, with the best farm system of the lot and a very smart front office in place to ensure their development and deployment go to plan. It’s never been harder to keep an edge over one’s opponents in baseball. The game is making huge strides forward, all the time. The Pirates could be just as good next season as they were this year, and still might win 10 fewer games.

Nor does it seem likely they will be quite this good, anyway. A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano are free agents. There aren’t any stars around McCutchen in the lineup, although Gregory Polanco could be in their outfield by the middle of next season. A large number of players outperformed their true talent by small margins this season, which is better than a single one or two winning three or four games that they won’t be able to win for Pittsburgh next season, but still, regression is indicated here.

Pirates fans, though, shouldn’t worry about that. It’s impossible to predict the NL Central in 2014 from where we are. Things might break right for them. The surge in attendance thanks to the sensation the team caused down the stretch might translate into greater budgetary flexibility. The Cardinals and Reds could run into age- or injury-related regression, themselves, two things about which the Pirates need not worry quite as much. There’s plenty of cause for hope headed into 2014, and the glow of this series, plus all that preceded it, should carry them through the long winter.

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