It's not how you start, it's how you finish. No team knows that better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who will kick off the National League Championship Series against a familiar foe in the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park this afternoon.
The Cards found themselves 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta on August 25, but went 23-8 to close the season and secured the wild card when the Philadelphia Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the Braves with a dramatic extra inning win on the final day of the season.
St. Louis then shocked the baseball world by taking out the 102-win Phillies in the National League Division Series with a heart-pounding 1-0 win in Game 5 on Friday, as Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hit shutout to outduel Roy Halladay.
"I understand we had some struggles during parts of the regular season, but you look at this team and, my goodness, we've got as good an everyday lineup as you can run out there," said Lance Berkman. "We've got several starters that are capable of shutting people down, and sort of a revamped and solid bullpen. And we're playing good. That's a good combination."
The Cardinals, who are back in this round for the 10th time in team history and the first time since 2006 when it won the World Series, had trailed 2-1 in the series, but beat Roy Oswalt and Halladay in the final two games.
"Any time you have Roy or any of those guys on the other side, it's like 'Carp' and [Adam] Wainwright for us," said Albert Pujols. "You know those guys are going to keep you in the game. They might have one inning that they have a tough inning, but besides that, they don't make too many mistakes. And, obviously, Carp didn't make too many today."
Jaime Garcia will get the call in Game 1 after a tough loss to the Phils in the NLDS. Garcia pitched brilliantly for six innings, but surrendered a three- run home run in the seventh. He gave up six hits and three runs in seven innings in the loss.
"He's a very talented young man," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "He's a terrific worker. And when he's got his delivery together, he's got a lot of ways to get hitters out. And he's still learning. He's going to get better than this. When he gets a little out of whack, you learn, 'I've got to do this or that.'"
Garcia had perhaps his best start of the entire 2011 season against Milwaukee back in May, when he threw nine innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out eight. The Brewers, though, did get him for seven runs (three earned) in a start in August. For his career he is 3-2 with a 3.27 ERA in eight games (seven starts) against the Brewers.
Like St. Louis, Milwaukee needed all five games to advance past the Arizona Diamondbacks and did so in thrilling fashion on Friday, as Nyjer Morgan hit a game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning to give the Brewers their first postseason series win in 29 years.
"He's gotten so many big hits for us all year," Ryan Braun said of Morgan, who has a few alter egos, including Tony Plush. "He enjoys the moment. It was just an incredible game, an unbelievable feeling to win this thing."
Milwaukee is in a League Championship Series for the first time since 1982 when it beat the Angels in the ALCS before falling to St. Louis in the World Series.
"It's amazing," Braun said. "We've heard all about 1982, so it's nice to start our own legacy. If we hadn't won today, I feel like everything we accomplished all year would have been for nothing. It's a great feeling and it's the first step to getting where we really want to be."
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke will hand the ball to righty Zack Greinke, who was a perfect 11-0 in 15 home starts this season. Greinke, though, did not get a decision in his NLDS start against Arizona, as he allowed four runs and eight hits in five innings of his team's 9-4 Game 2 win.
He became just the 14th pitcher since 1900 to win at least 10 home games in a season without a loss and the first since Cliff Lee went 10-0 at home for the Indians in 2008.
Greinke, who was 16-6 overall on the year, lost to the Cards the last time he faced them, but is 5-3 lifetime with a 3.75 ERA in nine games (seven starts) against them.
Of course the Cardinals are quite familiar with their NL Central inhabitant Brewers, who won the division by six games. Despite that the two teams split the 18 games played this season, but the Cardinals won six of the final seven matchups and swept the Brewers at Miller Park in late August.
Only twice since the addition of the wild card have two teams from the National League Central met in the NLCS. It last happened in 2005, when the Astros knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
With Philadelphia gone the Brewers, who set a franchise record by going 57-24 at home, will have home field advantage for this series. But it might not matter, as the Cardinals emerged victorious in five of nine matchups in Milwaukee.
Overall, the Brewers outscored the Cardinals, 71-64, while hitting .269 with 17 homers as a team. St. Louis connected for 18 home runs and had a batting average of .239.