Sometimes the undercard merits top billing, and that is certainly true when it comes to the preliminary bout of baseball's 2009 postseason between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals.
This National League Division Series does not lack historic weight or headliners on the field and in the dugouts, and it won't lack suspenseful drama.
In St. Louis, Albert Pujols is a god. But in a short five-game series, he will only be a wingman to the marquee pitchers, whose assignment is to keep a post-sixth lead out of the hands of the Dodgers' superior bullpen. In Los Angeles, Manny Ramirez is a ticking man-bomb, a two-month accessory who is the most battle-tested cog in the Dodgers' lineup, lurking, letting his hair down and waiting for someone in Mannywood to holler "Action!" The two most successful franchises in NL history clash under the guidance of two of the busiest and winningest managers in big league history. The Cardinals have 21 pennants, 10 World Series championships and Tony La Russa, who has managed more games than anyone except Connie Mack and ranks third in managerial wins. The Dodgers have 22 pennants, six World Series titles and Joe Torre, sixth in games and fifth in wins on the all-time lists for skippers. Torre -- who spent the middle part of his 18-year playing career in St. Louis, even winning an NL batting title with the Cardinals in 1971 -- is hell-bent to climb the wall he has been hitting in postseasons. He's in it for a record-tying 14th straight October, but he has been chased short of the World Series the past five trips, his teams going 14-18 in games. The teams also have contrasting styles. St. Louis leads with its rights, a meal-ticket rotation of right-handers headlined by Game 1 starter Chris Carpenter. Los Angeles, which goes southpaw in the first two games with Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, needs all the pieces in its kaleidoscope to fall into place to prevail. But when they do, the Dodgers are formidable. They have boasted the league's top record all season, through charges and chills. Things like that don't happen by accident. They do, however, happen by relief. Left-hander George Sherrill's non-waiver Trade Deadline arrival made a good bullpen great -- mirroring what Matt Holliday did for the St. Louis lineup. Dodgers relievers have by far the lowest aggregate ERA in the Majors, which helps explain why they've outscored foes by 70 runs late in games (seventh inning and after). "In October," Torre said, "it's all about the pitching. For controlling the game, with [lefties Hong-Chih] Kuo and Sherrill and [closer Jonathan] Broxton, we have no hesitation there." For most of their first 125 years, the teams' glory roads did not intersect. They meet in the postseason for only the third time, with the Cards having twice taken out the Dodgers -- in the six-game 1985 NL Championship Series and in the four-game 2004 NLDS. Both teams wobbled into the playoffs, but the Cards at least did so after clinching an NL Central race they led by 11 games as late as Sept. 19. The Dodgers fell across the finish line like a gassed marathon runner, which only adds to St. Louis' perceived edge. Torre has watched his club's split personality all season and is unfazed. "This is an unusual club, it's been that way all year," he said. "I'm not saying we were ever given up for dead, but we could play flat, then bounce right back." In terms of matchups, this could be a bad date for the Dodgers. Even in midseason, when they were hot, they dropped five of seven to St. Louis -- scoring a total of six runs in 38 innings off Carpenter, Wainwright and Game 3 starter Joel Pineiro. (Ramirez was 4-for-28 in those seven games, driving in one run.) There is tremendous pressure on both teams, some of it self-inflicted. With their heritage, showing up is never enough for the Cardinals, their likely league MVP reminded. "Our main goal is to get to the World Series," Pujols said. "This is just one step we take, almost like a baby step. You have to crawl before you can walk." Which is what the Dodgers did at the finish, but now they face the pressure of conforming to the destiny suggested by their wall-to-wall leadership of the NL West since April 15. In contrast, the Cardinals assumed the permanent lead of their division on July 30, the latest of all six division winners. The Dodgers also look to align their present with their own heritage. Although they broke the ice with last fall's NL Division Series sweep of the Cubs, the bottom line remains that they are 5-16 in postseason games since their win in the 1988 "Kirk Gibson" World Series.