So here we are again. And it's like we never left.
On Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET/12:05 CT, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2016 season to Matt Carpenter. Shortly thereafter, Andrew McCutchen will dig into the right-handed batter's box at PNC Park to face Adam Wainwright.
If you squint in your mind's eye, you can see the night of Oct. 9, 2013. The same basic cast of characters was at Busch Stadium for the deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series, although it was rookie Gerrit Cole getting that start for the Pirates. The Cardinals did exactly what they had to do -- never letting McCutchen, who would win the NL MVP Award a month later, come to bat in a spot where he could beat them.
Not only did Wainwright prevail in Game 5, but the Cards have gone 21-17 against the Bucs in the past two seasons. By the slimmest of margins, they've held their ground atop the NL Central, keeping the invaders at the castle gates.
Pittsburgh won 98 games last season, matching the storied franchise's most victories since 1909, but St. Louis won 100. The Pirates have been baseball's second-winningest team over the past three seasons, and in some ways also its most frustrated.
The Giants' Madison Bumgarner and the Cubs' Jake Arrieta beat Pittsburgh in the past two NL Wild Card Games, following Wainwright's lead in Game 5.
One thing the Bucs haven't lost is their will to win a World Series.
"Every year, we're a little more hungry," reliever Tony Watson said. "Ninety-eight wins is nothing to hang our heads about, but we definitely want to win a division, raise a World Series flag in Pittsburgh."
The Cardinals, of course, are the one team that has won more games than the Pirates the past three seasons (287 wins for St. Louis, 280 for Pittsburgh). But no longer are the Redbirds assured of a spot atop the division, as the Cubs, who finished third in the NL Central with 97 wins last season, are favored in the division on the strength of their young core and offseason additions Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist.
Heyward and Lackey were with the Cards last season, of course. St. Louis also opens this season minus shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who had surgery on his left thumb in Spring Training, and starter Lance Lynn, who will miss the season after having Tommy John surgery. But manager Mike Matheny points to Wainwright's return to good health and the signing of free-agent starter Mike Leake.
Despite Wainwright rupturing an Achilles tendon in his fourth start, the Cardinals won behind their pitching last season. St. Louis' staff put up a 2.94 ERA, the lowest in the Majors since the 1988 Mets came in at 2.91.
"I'm very excited about our staff,'' Matheny said. "Leake's a great addition, trying to get somebody to come in and fill up some of that workload that Lance had. Lackey had a great year for us, no question. But we're talking about getting our ace back. That's a pretty good trade. Then try to build on what Carlos [Martinez] and Michael [Wacha] are able to do. That's the making of a good staff, and Jaime [Garcia] is always a wild card.''
With no major additions to the lineup, the Cards need young outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to become keys as they hit behind Carpenter, who is baseball's most dangerous leadoff man. The Bucs look pretty much like they have the past three seasons, with Starling Marte hitting behind McCutchen, but this will be their first game without Pittsburgh native Neil Walker on the roster since May 2010.
Some things do change, like the Cubs entering the picture as a threat to both St. Louis and Pittsburgh. But the competition starts with the familiar tug of war between the Cardinals and Pirates. Let the battle begin.
Cardinals' projected Opening Day lineup
Matt Carpenter, 3B
Stephen Piscotty, RF
Matt Holliday, 1B
Randal Grichuk, CF
Yadier Molina, C
Jedd Gyorko, SS
Tommy Pham, LF
Kolten Wong, 2B
Adam Wainwright, RHP
Pirates' projected Opening Day lineup
John Jaso, 1B
Andrew McCutchen, CF
David Freese, 3B
Starling Marte, LF
Francisco Cervelli, C
Gregory Polanco, RF
Josh Harrison, 2B
Jordy Mercer, SS
Francisco Liriano, LHP