The Dodgers fell two wins shy of reaching the World Series last year because they were dropped by the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series in six games.
"Once again, we'll be facing unquestionably one of the most professional, battle-tested clubs in all of baseball," said catcher A.J. Ellis. "They understand what it takes to play in the postseason and what it takes to win the World Series, and we'll have our hands full."
Among the differences from last year's NLCS: this time, the Dodgers have the home-field advantage, the NLDS is best-of-five and not best-of-seven and Matt Kemp isn't hurt.
"Well, I think you have to look at it like we're a healthier team," manager Don Mattingly said. "Last year, we made the playoffs without Matt. Andre [Ethier] was basically, we were trying to nurse him into where he could play. He had that stress fracture and he was trying to play, and then Hanley [Ramirez] gets hit the first game, and it's not the same. We went in a little beat up, and we lose Hanley, and that's three pretty big bats out of your lineup."
Last year's NLCS will probably be remembered for Clayton Kershaw
getting whacked in the clinching Game 6 in St. Louis, although the tone was set when Ramirez had his ribs broken by a Joe Kelly
fastball in the first inning of Game 1. The Dodgers opened the series with two losses on the road, a hole even Kershaw couldn't have overcome himself.
"The thing about St. Louis, they get after it pretty good," Mattingly said this week. "They play hard, play smart. And they've got Yadi [Molina]. He gives a pitcher confidence you don't necessarily have with somebody else. That confidence is part of the preparation when you play them."
Coincidentally, the Dodgers were 4-3 in the season series against the Cardinals last year and 4-3 this year. Last year, they were 3-1 at home and 1-2 on the road; this year, 1-2 at home and 3-1 on the road. The Dodgers are 1-3 against the Cardinals in postseason series.
"We've played them several times the past few seasons -- they've beat us, we've beat them," said Kemp, who is on fire instead of on crutches. "It'll be a battle, two hungry teams trying to win a championship. They're always tough. I'm excited. I get a chance to play. Last year, I had to watch. I get to do my thing."
"The Cardinals are the typical Cardinals team," said Darwin Barney, familiar with the Cardinals as a former NL Central opponent. "Their guys pitch, they play a solid game. You don't see them take a lot of chances. They whittle away at you, get the job done."
As usual, the Dodgers have some injury issues. They are cautiously optimistic that Hyun-Jin Ryu will return in time from left shoulder inflammation, although he hasn't pitched in a game since Sept. 12. They are equally hopeful that the inflammation that returned to Dee Gordon's right hip over the weekend will dissipate by Friday.
The good news for Ramirez is that Kelly is gone, sent to Boston in the trade that brought John Lackey to the Cardinals.
The bad news for the Dodgers is that Molina is still the heart and soul of the Cardinals. You rarely hear the Dodgers speak of an opposing player in the reverential tones they offered last year after he led the St. Louis victory.
"Playing against them so much, I've seen Yadi rise to the occasion so many times," Barney said. "He gets the big hit, especially with runners in scoring position. I definitely have huge respect for him, watching him day in and day out."
But Kershaw is the heart and soul of the Dodgers. He might not talk about it, but he has a score to settle with the Cardinals, whom many in the Dodgers organization believe were stealing signs, or at least picking up on what pitches were coming, in last year's 9-0 Game 6 wipeout.
"Even that game, [Kershaw] wasn't that bad," Mattingly pointed out. "If we throw the ball in the right place, he might give up three runs [instead of seven]. Go back and look at every play, where the ball went and where the next ball went. There would have been a double play, and he's out of the inning. He really wasn't that bad.
"It was like that game in Arizona [on May 17]. People were going, 'Oh, Clayton.' Now, it's like, 'Oh ... Clayton.' It's part of the beauty of the game. Another day, another game. Some guys are just able to put bad games behind them."
Zack Greinke, lined up to start Game 2 for the Dodgers, said facing the Cardinals "is never easy."
"I've faced them a bunch and I know they're really good, but I haven't seen them the past two months," Greinke said. "I know they've been swinging the bats since the All-Star break really well. The lineup is dangerous."