Cards, Astros evenly matched

Cards, Astros evenly matched

St. Louis and Houston, the two teams in Major League Baseball with the most postseason victories over the last two years, are going to fight it out one more time for the right to advance to the World Series.

The Cardinals, with 10 postseason victories in the last two seasons, and the Astros, with nine, met in the National League Championship Series last year with St. Louis winning in seven games in one of the more memorable NLCS meetings.

This year could be just as intense.

"I'm ready for them, so is everybody else," Astros pitcher Brandon Backe said following Houston's 7-6 victory in 18 innings over Atlanta on Sunday night that clinched an NLCS berth. "This game is going to keep us going. With [Andy] Pettitte and Roy [Oswalt] starting it off, it's going to be great. I just can't wait to get it going."

Last year, the home team won every game. The NL Central champion Cardinals will have the home-field advantage again this time over the Wild Card-winning Astros after finishing 11 games ahead of Houston in the division race. For the Cardinals, it was their fifth NL Central title in the last six years.

"Both teams play the game the right way," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said when asked recently why the Astros and Cardinals play so many close games. "Both play hard and do the things winning teams do."

Even without injured third baseman Scott Rolen, the Cardinals have a decided edge offensively, with such sluggers as Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker.

The Astros did score 25 runs in the four-game series against Atlanta, but Houston's offense is more of a small-ball attack. Houston was shut out 17 times during the regular season. The Astros have some power in first baseman Lance Berkman, right fielder Jason Lane and third baseman Morgan Ensberg.

The Cardinals led the National League in ERA, slightly ahead of Houston. The St. Louis rotation of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Matt Morris and Jeff Suppan is talented and deep. As is Houston's with Pettitte, Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Backe.

"They have a lot of weapons," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. "They beat us last year and they had the best record in the league this year. They are a very strong team any way you look at it."

Both bullpens are also among the better units in baseball. The Cardinals have closer Jason Isringhausen and relievers Julian Tavarez, Randy Flores and Ray King, while the Astros go with closer Brad Lidge and setup men Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls.

The Cardinals know Lidge all too well. The right-hander limited them to one hit in eight innings while saving two games in the NLCS last year. He continued his mastery against the Cardinals in the 2005 regular season as he did not allow a run in seven appearances covering 7 2/3 innings while racking up four saves.

For his career, Lidge has allowed just four earned runs in 26 2/3 innings against St. Louis (1.35 ERA) and has limited Cardinals hitters to an .052 (4-for-77) batting average.

Lidge said none of that matters this week.

"I know they're going to be ready for us," Lidge said. "It's going to be a battle. I think we're the two best teams in the National League without a doubt, and it's going to be a lot of fun. [The series is] going to go back and forth I think."

The Cardinals won 11 of the 16 meetings with the Astros this season with winning records at both Busch Stadium and Minute Maid Park.

Game 1 will be held Wednesday night at Busch Stadium. Game 2 will be played Thursday before the series moves to Houston on Saturday for up to three games.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.