ST. LOUIS -- A three-team division race that was a thriller throughout September is down to two survivors in October, and now the stage is set for a National League Division Series pitting familiar foes.
The Majors' first division since 2002 to boast three 90-game winners will be represented under the glare of the postseason spotlight Thursday when the NL Central champion Cardinals host the upstart Pirates at Busch Stadium for Game 1 (5 p.m. ET on TBS) of the first playoff series between two storied franchises.
Veteran ace Adam Wainwright will be on the mound for the Cardinals, who are in the postseason for the fourth time in the past five years. He'll meet veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett of the Pirates, making their first postseason run since 1992.
Thursday's game will mark the two teams' 20th meeting of 2013, so they obviously have a feel for each other's tendencies and strengths heading into the series.
"We ought to know each other by now," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But we're constantly looking for adjustments and seeing what guys are doing and trying to be prepared and have a game plan.
"So it really doesn't matter that it's someone that we played a lot. We just probably have more history, but they have equally as much, so there's really not an advantage there."
Pittsburgh earned the right to play in the NLDS with a decisive 6-2 victory over division-rival Cincinnati on Tuesday night in the NL Wild Card Game, ending two decades of frustration for the Bucs.
"It's one of the things you've got to do to continue to move the organization forward, for this team to move forward," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after the Wild Card victory. "You have to keep knocking down things like this."
The next obstacle in the Bucs' return to the October party is a considerable one. The Cards were one win away from reaching the World Series a year ago, and their NL-leading 97 victories this year marked their most since back-to-back 100-win seasons in 2004-05.
St. Louis is a team that is loaded with postseason experience and feeling good heading into October, having won its last six games and 10 of its last 12 in the regular season.
In Wainwright, the Redbirds will be going with an experienced postseason hand who served as the team's closer in the World Series his rookie season in 2006. After missing the Cards' magical run to the World Series in 2011, he made three October starts last year, one bad one raising his ERA to 4.80 in '12 and 2.48 for his career.
Wainwright is coming off a stellar 2013 campaign in which he won 19 games, becoming only the third Cardinals pitcher to lead or tie for the most wins in the NL twice in his career, and he led the league with five complete games and two shutouts. He didn't walk a batter for the first 34 2/3 innings of the season and wound up issuing just 35 free passes in a career-high 241 2/3 innings.
Against the Pirates this year, Wainwright went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts, going seven innings in each of them.
"They probably know how I'm going to approach their at-bats, and we probably know how they're going to do ours," said Wainwright, who spun seven shutout innings against Pittsburgh on Sept. 7. "So the key to all of that is execution. You can have the greatest plan in the world, but if you don't execute it, it's garbage."
Burnett, meanwhile, was on the 2003 Marlins team that shocked the Yankees in the Fall Classic, but he was recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time. Burnett then pitched for the Yankees during their run to the title in 2009, and again in '10 and '11, compiling a 5.08 ERA but finishing with a strong Division Series start in '11.
Since his arrival in Pittsburgh in 2012, Burnett has set the tone for a Pirates rotation that has become a force in the NL. This year, he made six starts against the Cardinals, more than against any other opponent, going 3-1 with a 3.67 ERA. But he had a rough outing his last time against them, lasting just three innings while allowing five earned runs.
"It's a great lineup over there," Burnett said. "You can't make too many mistakes, because they'll capitalize on them. And the good games, I have limited those, and the ones that have got me, I haven't been able to execute."
Burnett will have his hands full against a Cardinals team that has been there and done that, leading a band of Pirates that is sailing into uncharted waters.
The Bucs took the season series, 10-9, but the Cards finished strong with a three-game sweep in St. Louis in which they outscored the Pirates, 26-10.
But this is different. This is October.
Said Matheny: "We know that once you get there, it's just baseball, and we've got to play the same kind we've been playing all year."
Pirates: Byrd makes it count
Marlon Byrd waited 1,250 regular-season games to make his first postseason appearance, and he didn't waste any time getting involved in the October party.
Byrd homered in his first at-bat Tuesday night, continuing his contributions to the Pirates' success this season. Byrd, acquired from the Mets in an August waiver deal, went 34-for-107 (.318) in 30 games with Pittsburgh before making his postseason bow Tuesday night.
"I'm full of gratitude," Byrd said. "I thank them so much for everything they did. They believed in me, they gave me a chance. And not just that. They put me in a great position, letting me come over here and experiencing the playoffs. Everything they did for me, I will never forget it."
• Hurdle said the Pirates' bullpen, which set a club record with 55 saves and ranked second in the NL in ERA at 2.85 ERA, is in fine shape heading into the series. Pirates relievers have allowed two earned runs in their past 15 2/3 innings.
"Couple days, nobody's tight, nobody's sore ... for Oct. 2, it's as well rested a bullpen as you can have," Hurdle said.
Cardinals: A different Carpenter this October
After a solid rookie season in 2012, Matt Carpenter was used sparingly in the postseason, coming through with some big hits but starting just two games and making 17 plate appearances in the Cards' 13 playoff games.
From the first pitch of the bottom of the first inning Thursday, Carpenter will be exponentially more important to the Cardinals' hopes this October.
Having taken over the leadoff spot in 2013, Carpenter delivered a record-setting regular season, falling just one hit short of 200, and leading the Majors in doubles with 55 -- a total that surpassed Stan Musial's best season by one, something that'll definitely win over hearts in St. Louis. He also led the Majors in runs (126) and multihit games (63) while making 128 starts at second base, 24 at third and seeing time in the outfield as well.
"I don't know where we'd be without him -- having that leadoff hitter and having the kind of season that he's having and what he's done defensively," Matheny said. "It's just off the charts, as far as how good he has been and how much he's proven just what a solid baseball player he is -- no matter where we put him."
• Matheny said starters Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller will be available out of the bullpen for Game 1, but he wants to wait to name any starters past these first two games in St. Louis. Lance Lynn will take the ball in Friday's Game 2.
• This marks the fourth time NL Central rivals have faced each other in the playoffs since the division was created in 1994, the first three coming in the NL Championship Series -- Cardinals-Brewers in 2011 and Cardinals-Astros in 2004-05.
• In the 19 games the two teams played this season, the Pirates hit 19 homers and the Cardinals just five.
• Pittsburgh has an overall postseason record of 41-49, while St. Louis is 112-98.
• The Bucs won five of their last six road games in the regular season.
• The Cards' 57 postseason wins since 1996 are the most in the NL during that time.
• The Cardinals (97), Pirates (94) and Reds (90) matched the 2002 NL West (D-backs, Giants, Dodgers) with three 90-win teams.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.