(SportsNetwork.com) - Two of the most decorated teams in the history of baseball square off when the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers meet in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.
These teams are certainly no stranger to one another in the postseason, as the Cardinals beat Los Angeles in a 2004 Division Series and the 1985 NL Championship Series, both en route to World Series defeats.
The Dodgers, though, got the best of the Cardinals the last time these clubs met in October, sweeping them in the 2009 NLDS.
Combined, the two teams have accounted for 17 World Series titles. While the Cards last won in 2011, the Dodgers are trying to get back to that round for the first time since winning it all in 1988.
"It's going to be a blast," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "It's going to be fun. St. Louis and L.A. going at it. Obviously, they're a great team. ... It's going to be huge. It's going to be a lot of fun."
St. Louis finds itself back in the NLCS for the third straight year after a terrific regular season campaign that saw the club win an NL-best 97 games. The Cardinals, though, needed all five games to get past the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLDS.
After falling behind 2-1 in that set, the Cards rallied back to win the next two backed by a pair of tremendous pitching performances. After rookie Michael Wacha flirted with a no-hitter to win Game 4, ace Adam Wainwright put the hammer down in the decisive fifth game with a little help from another postseason hero.
Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP, set the tone with a two-run home run, while Wainwright scattered eight singles and struck out six in a complete-game win.
"To pitch a game like that is one of the highlights of my baseball life, no doubt," Wainwright said. "These are the kind of moments starting pitchers live for."
Wainwright, who led the NL with 19 wins, won't be available until Game 3.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has a decision to make as it pertains to Game 1 starter on Friday. Righties Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and even Shelby Miller, who did not pitch in the NLDS, are all a consideration.
There are no questions as to who will be starting Game 2 and that will be Wacha, who has nearly thrown a no-hitter each of the last two times he has taken the hill.
The team's first pick in the 2012 draft, Wacha saved the Cardinals season in Game 4 of the NLDS in Pittsburgh, as he took a no-hitter into the eighth in a stellar 7 1/3-inning, nine-strikeout performance. He had come within an out of no-hitting Washington in his final regular season start.
"We did a lot of gushing about him before we even got him out there today, and I think everybody sees why," Matheny said after his NLDS outing. "I don't know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot. He came out and just made pitches all day long. He's just got a knack of getting up there and (being) very business- like getting the job done."
Carlos Beltran added to his postseason legacy by driving in six runs in the five-game set. Amazingly he only hit .222, but his .944 OPS in this series was his second lowest OPS in a playoff series.
One of the top postseason performers of all time, Beltran hit his 16th postseason home run in Game 3 and surpassed Babe Ruth for the eighth-most in baseball history. Beltran's 1.247 OPS in the postseason is the highest in any player's career.
Pittsburgh walked Beltran twice to lead off an inning in the series and the second time the Cards made it pay, as Matt Holliday's two-run home run was the difference in St. Louis' Game 4 win.
"There's plenty to think about beyond Carlos," Matheny said.
In addition to being the best defensive catcher in the game, Yadier Molina has also become a more than capable bat in the lineup. This year, he hit .319 and drove in 80 runs. Second baseman Matt Carpenter was a real surprise, though, as the rookie earned an All-Star berth, hitting .318, while scoring a major league-best 126 runs.
Molina, though, was just 5-for-17 in the NLDS, while Carpenter managed just one hit in 19 at-bats.
First baseman Matt Adams continued to be a pleasant surprise filling in for Allen Craig and hit .316. Craig, though, has stated he may be back at some point in the NLCS.
If there was an area of concern for the Cardinals heading into the postseason it was certainly in their bullpen. But, the group pitched to a 2.45 ERA against the Pirates.
Young Trevor Rosenthal has supplanted Edward Mujica as the team's closer. Matheny also relies on a pair of hard-throwing rookies in lefty Kevin Siegrist and right-hander Carlos Martinez.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, found itself 9 1/2 games back in the NL West on June 22 and seemed to be close to firing manager Don Mattingly. However, the team rattled off 42 wins in 50 games and claimed its 12th division title since 1969.
However, the team stumbled down the stretch and went just 12-15 in September. The poor play, though, didn't carry into the postseason, as the Dodgers took care of the Atlanta Braves in four games in the NLDS and are back in the NLCS for the first time since 2009.
Juan Uribe delivered the big hit for the Dodgers in the Game 4 clincher, as his two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth put them ahead for good and may have saved his manager from a whole world of trouble.
Mattingly left himself open to some criticism in that final game, as he opted to go back to left-hander Clayton Kershaw on short rest. Kershaw, who had never started a game on three days' rest, went six innings and allowed two unearned runs.
Kershaw is likely headed toward another NL Cy Young Award after a remarkable regular season that saw him go 16-9 and lead the major leagues with a minuscule 1.83 ERA and an NL-best 232 strikeouts.
It was the fourth consecutive season that Kershaw tallied 200 or more strikeouts. He also allowed a .195 batting average -- .202 to right-handed hitters and .165 to left-handed hitters.
"If Donnie wanted me to pitch tomorrow, I would," said Kershaw. "This is the postseason. All that other stuff, the preparation, is he going to be ready, is your arm going to be tired? Throw that out the window. It doesn't matter. You just go."
Over his last 11 starts, including his two postseason starts, Kershaw is 6-2 with a remarkable 1.46 ERA.
"He's the best pitcher on the planet," said catcher A.J. Ellis. "He's a warrior. He wants to be in these moments."
Kershaw will go in Game 2, as Mattingly will turn to another former Cy Young Award winner in Game 1 in 2009 AL winner Zack Greinke, who lost to the Braves, despite a solid outing that saw him surrender two runs and four hits in six innings.
Greinke was 15-4 this season and pitched to a 1.58 ERA over his final 12 regular season starts. He also won 12 of his final 14 decisions and was 7-0 with a 1.95 ERA over his last 10 starts on the road.
Mattingly will likely hand the ball to Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3 and given the amount of lefties in the Cardinals lineup, he could turn to lefty Chris Capuano in Game 4 rather than right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who struggled down the stretch.
Still, though, the smart money will be on Nolasco to go in a fourth game.
The Dodgers are led by the two horses atop their rotation, but their offense isn't too shabby either. They hit .333 as a team in the NLDS, including Hanley Ramirez (.500), Yasiel Puig (.471), Uribe (.375), Carl Crawford (.353) and Ellis (.333).
Los Angeles' lineup could get even better in this round if outfielder Andre Ethier is added to the roster. Ethier hasn't played the field since Sept. 13 because of a condition similar to shin splints above his left ankle.
As well as the Dodgers hit versus Atlanta, Ethier's replacement Skip Schumaker managed just a .231 average, the lowest of any of the Dodgers' starting position player in the NLDS.
The Dodgers were 4-3 against the Cardinals this season, including three wins in four games in St. Louis. Not having homefield advantage for this series may not matter, as Los Angeles was tied with Texas for the best road record in the majors in 2013, at 45-36.
It's hard to argue with the amount of postseason experience this Cardinals team has. Not to mention this is just a group that seems to find a way to win no matter what obstacle is thrown in the way.
They just feel at home in the postseason.
When it clicks on all cylinders, though, this Dodgers' lineup is relentless. That coupled with the fact that Greinke and Kershaw will both likely get two starts in this series gives Mattingly's team the edge in what could be a classic series.
If there is a baseball god he'll deliver a Kershaw-Wainwright showdown in Game 7.
PREDICTION: DODGERS in SEVEN