PITTSBURGH -- In a pitching rematch of Game 3 starters from last October's National League Division Series, Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano and St. Louis' Joe Kelly are set to duel again at PNC Park on Saturday night.
Liriano and the Pirates got the best of Kelly at PNC Park in the postseason, though the Cardinals still stormed back to take the series. Friday's 11-2 win by Pittsburgh was the first meeting between these two NL Central rivals since St. Louis ended the Pirates' special 2013 season.
"[The Cardinals] have set the bar very high, organizationally speaking," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "[It] should continue to be a good weekend of baseball. … It will be interesting to see how we match up with the new faces. I'm looking forward to the competition."
Liriano entered 2014 as the Pirates' ace and clear candidate to pitch on Opening Day, which he did. He did not factor in the decision despite throwing six scoreless innings. He was a nemesis to the Cardinals last season, too, holding them to two runs in 24 innings of his three winning starts. At PNC Park, he is 8-1 with a 1.36 ERA in 12 starts with the Bucs.
"I think the past few years we had a very good awareness that this is a very good team," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We knew that they were continuing to get better and their young players were getting better with every opportunity they had every year. This team isn't going anywhere. They've got a lot of young talent, and they're very motivated and they're moving in the direction they want to go."
Unlike Liriano, who had his rotation spot assured when he reported to Spring Training, Kelly had to win one. He emerged from a battle with Carlos Martinez to be named the fifth starter, and Saturday will mark his season debut.
The Cardinals would be thrilled, too, if Kelly could mirror the success he had as a starter a season ago. Though he didn't open the 2013 season in the Cardinals' rotation, he finished it there and went 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA in 15 starts. In 11 of those, Kelly allowed two or fewer runs.
"The guys that start the season [in the rotation] are rarely the same guys that end the season [because of] injuries or not pitching well," Kelly said. "I'm going to go out there and have to perform every single start. I'm excited to be a starter."
Cardinals: Relievers redefined
The Cardinals may have the back end of their bullpen all settled, but there remains some fluidity in how the Cardinals will use their relievers to get to setup man Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Two pitchers, in particular, are expected to find themselves expanding their role.
Randy Choate joined the Cardinals as a left-on-left specialist, while Pat Neshek came with the reputation of being right-on-right dominant. The Cardinals will continue to seek out favorable matchups for each, but the club also can't afford to carry two solely specialist relievers. It means that Choate will also be called upon to get right-handed batters out and Neshek will face lefties.
"If you want to just use one pitcher up for one hitter, we're going to be through our bullpen in no time," Matheny said. "We'll end up killing our guys and not maximizing. We believe Randy can get outs [against right-handers], just like we've talked about with Pat Neshek. We believe he can get outs with left-handers."
The Cardinals were able to give reliever Kevin Siegrist the day off on Friday, as desired. Seth Maness and Keith Butler each made their first appearances of the season and both got knocked around.
Pirates: Martin joins the 'Circus'
Russell Martin raised some controversy in Friday night's series opener on the bases. From behind the plate, the Pittsburgh catcher only raised eyebrows.
Martin's play on Peter Bourjos' leadoff bunt in the fifth inning had both his batterymate, Gerrit Cole, and Hurdle reaching for superlatives. Martin pounced on Bourjos' bunt about 25 feet in front of and to the left of the plate, slid to a stop and spun for a nearly blind, yet spot-on throw to first, where Travis Ishikawa did the splits to glove the ball in time.
"That might've been the third or fourth time I'm almost ready to say, 'Don't throw!' And he slides and picks it up and fires it and he's out," Hurdle said. "That's borderline Cirque de Soleil."
Cole said he was "blown away by it. I don't know how he made that play. I was like, 'Wow.'"
It was also a key play: Without it, Matt Carpenter's home run later in the inning would've tied the score.
• Saturday's game is scheduled to be broadcast by MLB Network.
• Pirates outfielder Starling Marte has reached base safely in all 16 games he has played against the Cardinals.
• Though ineligible to come off the disabled list in this series, Cardinals infielder Mark Ellis continues to increase the amount of baseball activity he does while working his way back from left knee tendinitis. Ellis is likely to go out on a Minor League rehab assignment next week.
• Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay will enter Saturday riding a 15-game hitting streak.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.