ST. LOUIS – For all their familiarity, the Houston Astros (search) and St. Louis Cardinals (search) have hardly developed a fierce rivalry. Even though they're meeting again for the National League championship, relations between the teams are largely cordial.
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"They're a good bunch of guys," Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said. "It's hard to dislike them."
Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday night at soon-to-be-demolished Busch Stadium, marking the first NLCS rematch since Atlanta faced Pittsburgh in 1991-92.
Clearly, this isn't Middle America's version of Yankees-Red Sox. In fact, it's not even close to being the best rivalry in the NL Central — that distinction belongs to the Cardinals-Cubs.
"That's at a different level because of the fans," Eckstein conceded. "I don't know that you'll find a Cardinals fan who says he hates the Astros more than the Cubs."
But, when it comes to performance on the field, the Cardinals and Astros are at the top of their league. In fact, there are many similarities between the teams.
Both have deep starting rotations. Both have dominating closers. Both have versatile offenses that can go long or manufacture runs when the situation calls for it. And both are making a habit of playing in October.
"On the field, it's a classic," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa (search) said. "We play the game the same way."
St. Louis has six playoff appearances over the past decade, reaching the NLCS four times and the World Series (search) a year ago with a seven-game victory over the Astros — a memorable series that was overshadowed by Boston's comeback win against the Yankees in the ALCS.
The Cardinals stayed alive when Jim Edmonds hit a game-winning homer in the 12th inning of Game 6. St. Louis closed out the series by beating Roger Clemens (search) in Game 7.
Houston is making its sixth playoff appearance in nine years and looking to reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. The Astros made a breakthrough last year by beating perennial nemesis Atlanta — their first postseason series victory. They knocked off the Braves in the opening round again this year, winning the final game in an 18-inning marathon.
Then again, the Astros still have some catching up to do against the Cardinals, one of baseball's most revered franchises.
St. Louis followed up last year's NL pennant — the 16th in franchise history — by going 11-5 against the Astros this season on the way to 100 wins and a runaway victory in the Central Division.
Houston finished 11 games back, but managed to pull out the wild card after falling 15 games under .500 early in the year.
"It's not really going to be a rivalry until we start beating the Cardinals a couple of times," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "When they go home mad, then it will be a rivalry. Right now, it's kind of one-sided."
But he acknowledges the parallels between the teams, right down to the makeovers both underwent since their first meeting in the NLCS, changes brought on by frail health and monetary decisions.
Albert Pujols (search) had another huge year, but he's the only one in the St. Louis lineup to reach 100 RBIs. He had a lot more help last year, but injuries to Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders forced the Cardinals to be more creative with their offensive production.
"We do the little things," said first-year Cardinal Mark Grudzielanek, who wasn't around for last season's power display. "I've never seen so many squeezes in my life."
The pitching staff also picked up the slack. The Cardinals got a huge season from Game 1 starter Chris Carpenter (search) (21-5) and backed him up with offseason acquisition Mark Mulder (search) (16-8). Matt Morris (search) (14-10) and Jeff Suppan (search) (16-10) round out the rotation.Jason Isringhausen (search) had 39 saves.
The 2004 Astros also featured a prolific offense, built around Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and the remaining "Killer B's" — Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
But Beltran and Kent were lost in free agency, Berkman had to come back from offseason knee injury and Bagwell is only a shell of the once-fearsome slugger, limited to pinch-hitting after shoulder surgery. Morgan Ensberg is the only Houston hitter with 100 RBIs.
Like the Cardinals, Houston's pitching helped fill the void. Wednesday starter Andy Pettitte (search) (17-9), Roy Oswalt (search) (20-12) and the ageless Clemens (13-8) claimed three of the top seven spots on the NL's ERA list. Brad Lidge (search) (42 saves) is one of the game's best finishers.
Now, if they could just build up a little anger toward each other.
"It's not a rivalry of hatred. It's a rivalry of mutual respect," Berkman said. "We enjoy competing against these guys."