For the second year in a row, the NL Central winner will come into the League Championship series having reached triple digits in regular season wins.
For the second year in a row, they face the second-place division finisher in the LCS.
For the second year in a row, that second place team finished behind the first place team by a double-digit margin during the regular season.
For the second year in a row, the first place team dispatched their first round playoff opponent, as did the second place squad. Each accomplished this in one fewer game than the year before.
What is different this time? Well, it remains to be seen if the Cardinals will be required to pull themselves off the canvas in Game 6, while down 3-2. A consensus of our writers think the Cards will find the going easier against the Astros this time.
Here, members of the www.thestlcardinals.com staff share our predictions of what will happen and why during the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros starting in Busch Stadium on Wednesday.
Brian Walton – Cards in five
To me, it is simple. The Cards have taken it to the Astros all season long. Due to the crazy unbalanced schedule, St. Louis faced Houston 16 times in 2005, winning 11. Two of the four losses came during the final week of the season, when the motivations of the two teams were vastly different. To think that the teams aren't fully aware of that domination is naïve.
Despite my points above about the year-to-year similarities, in reality, the situation was much different in 2004. The ‘Stros came into the LCS knowing they actually had an 8-10 regular season edge against the ‘Birds, giving them hope despite the huge gulf in the standings. But, those Houstonians also had a better team. Jeff Bagwell was at full speed, Carlos Beltran was a one-man wrecking crew and Jeff Kent played All-Star caliber second base. While third sacker Morgan Ensberg has emerged this season, the other additions to the Houston lineup have been a step down.
Many are concerned about the big three Astros starting pitchers and their elite closer, Brad Lidge. I see it differently. As long as the Cardinals offense remain patient and work the count as they usually do so well, the Houston aces won't last beyond the sixth inning. There remains no viable "Bridge to Lidge", as the ‘Stros' pen is a one-trick pony. Their numbers against the Cards look ok this year and they pitched well in their NLDS Game 4 (a.k.a. Games 4+5), but overall, as a group, their ERA is a half run higher than the Cardinals' pen.
In conclusion – with both the offensive and defensive edge to the Cards and a pitching draw at worst - the Cards will prevail in a relatively-easy five games. As a result, they will be spraying the champagne and Budweiser for the third time this season in a visitor's locker room. Sorry, Houston clubhouse attendants. Too bad your tricked-up, juice box of a ballpark isn't the one being torn down after the season.
Ray Mileur – Cards in seven
The Cardinals in seven. Houston's Top Guns pose some problems and the Astros have played better of late.
Questions about Mulder and Game two, poses some potential problems. A second sweep is unlikely and the big questions are, can Matt Morris have back to back effective outings and will the bullpen turn things around.
The Astros have come into St. Louis once this season as the hottest team in the National League only to face defeat at the hands of the Cardinals. Ditto, it will take seven games.
Joe Mammy – Cards in six
The Cardinals did what everyone expected by rolling over the Padres, but no one is expecting the Astros to go as quickly or quietly as San Diego. So how will the Cards fair against their NL Central rivals?
In the NLDS Reggie Sanders had a historic run, but the NLCS will hinge more on Pujols and his protection in the lineup—Eckstein at the top of the order needs to get on and whoever Tony La Russa plugs into the cleanup slot needs to help ensure that the Astros actually pitch to him. If Larry Walker continues to struggle at the plate, I'd expect La Russa to do some lineup juggling to help fortify Albert's position in the batting order. I'm making an early prediction the Albert will repeat as NLCS MVP as he responds to the postseason pressure.
The other big factor will be the bench—don't be surprised if you see a game won by the likes of So Taguchi, John Rodriguez, John Mabry or John Gall. With the starting pitching likely to be stifling for both sides, Tony La Russa's use of his bench to get the matchups he wants will pay big dividends. The big question to me is whether TLR is going to use his head and start Jason Marquis or his heart and choose Matt Morris. Many are talking up the Astros offensive resurgence as a problem area for the Cardinals, but without an '05 version of Carlos Beltran being on an insane tear, this series may end up more lop-sided than people think.
Cards in 6
Jason Scott – Cards in five
The Cardinals shouldn't have much trouble disposing of the Houston Astros this time around. I know the Cardinals are without Rolen and Houston didn't have Pettitte last year, but having Carpenter and Mulder, and Houston's loss of Carlos Beltran more than makes up for that.
Carpenter and Mulder went a combined 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA in nine starts against the Astros this season, including Mulder's 10-inning complete-game shutout on April 23. Jason Marquis, who is not even guaranteed a start in the series, went 4-0 in five starts against the Astros this season. Overall, the Cardinals won 11 of 16 games against Houston this season and swept them twice. I know they have the best 1-2-3 starters and possibly the best closer in the league, but I just don't see them presenting much of a threat to the Cardinals.
While another sweep is possible, I'll take the Cardinals in five.
Rex Duncan – Cards in seven
The Cards-Astros National League Championship Series looms as possibly even more exciting than the 2004 version. If you thought the Red Sox had momentum last year, the Astros enter this series like a runaway freight train. While many scholars of the game may actually pick the Astros to prevail, I still like the Cards chances.
As we learned last year, momentum is important, but this is a stronger Cardinal team than last year. The Redbird starting pitching is much improved over 2004. The offense is brutal. Their defense also improved, especially up the middle from catcher to center field. The Cardinals match up quite well against the Astros in many categories except, perhaps, emotion. The Astros are used to living day to day since their incredible second half run, yet the Cardinals are focused like a laser on the World Series and, as they showed against the Padres, mean business.
I love the prospect of this series. Two tough, scrappy, talented rivals who also brim with class and respect for the game and each other. The same conditions must hold against the Astros as they did against the Padres. Jim Edmonds must be offensively productive, Reggie Sanders needs to stay hot, and the on-base percentages need to remain high against tough Astros starting pitching. If the Cardinals can score early and hold their leads, Brad Lidge becomes an afterthought.
Wonderfully exciting series with the Cards winning in 7.
Pete Khazen – Astros in six
The 2005 NLCS sets the stage for a classic rematch from 2004. The St. Louis Cardinals took the series from the Houston Astros in seven games last year, with the home team claiming victory in every game. Those who argue against the benefits of home field advantage in baseball have clearly never been to an important game at Busch Stadium or Minute Maid Park. Will these teams reap the benefits of the home field advantage and last raps again? Not this year.
With both teams swinging sweet sticks, even without Carlos Beltran and Scott Rolen, this series is going to come down to pitching. Though the Astros have an impressive starter in Andy Pettitte, who as missing in last year's NLCS action, the Cards counter with Cy Young Award favorite Chris Carpenter. Those two effectively balance each other out, but when you put Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens up against Mark Mulder and Matt Morris, it's tough not to give the edge to the Astros. But both teams are going to score their fair share of runs in this roller coaster of a series, so that means it will be a battle of bullpens, and not starting pitching. And the combination of Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge outshine the shaky Julian Tavarez and Jason Isringhausen. Yes, the Astros bats are mightier than the hollow sticks from San Diego, so those late-inning Cardinal bullpen mistakes that produced Padre singles in the NLDS will turn into devastating doubles and homers as Houston rolls to the World Series.
It's Houston in six, providing a disappointing farewell to Busch Stadium… and it won't even get to happen on the prime time television stage.
Recap of NLDS predictions:
Cards in three: no one
Cards in four: Walton, Duncan and Mammy
Cards in four or five: Mileur
Cards in five: Khazen
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